I I have absolutely no recollection of the dinners before my parents’ divorce, which is weird because I was six at the time and as the divorces progress theirs was pretty painless. Our meals were not marred by the shouts of the parties; there was no tension at the table. Mom and Dad may not have been the most suitable partners for better or for worse, but they were never deliberately unpleasant.
Surely a psychoanalyst would suggest that there is more to my amnesia than meets the eye. I prefer to focus on the dinners I can remember, the ones after the divorce, when life was divided into time at Mom’s house and with Dad. The split was 50:50, almost to the second, a restriction that made meals more meaningful.
Mom shopped and cooked efficiently and effectively, keeping an eye on the time and the contents of the refrigerator. Her dinners provided constant rhythms of competition, routine, and warmth, inspired by Delia Smith, recipes inherited from her own mother, and any necessary ingredients. More resounding are the meals prepared by my shocked father, such as scrambled eggs beaten with a fork and cooked in the microwave until almost solid. The eggs retained the shape of the measuring jug when Dad placed them on toast from Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, where they feel pale, pepper-stained, and shaky.
He neither loved nor hated them. One advantage that my brother and I were so young when Dad was in the background of making dinner was that we had no point of comparison. Mom didn’t cook scrambled eggs, too much food for breakfast, little food for dinner. Even if it had, we would never have mentioned it, without comparing our parents as one of our unspoken golden rules. Today, my 27-year-old brother’s silky, buttery eggs are a source of pride, but it wasn’t Dad’s aversion to eggs that led him to perfect them. Looking back, she says: “I think for a long time I thought that eggs were always cooked in a microwave; that’s what scrambled eggs were. “
Even then, we were aware of the effort Dad was making. Our hot chocolate, again, in the microwave, was so rich that dust bubbles would collect on the surface and explode sweetly on our tongues. At pre-dinner drinks, a weekend ritual Dad never failed to observe, even without the company of an adult, we “spiced up” his wine with glasses of grape juice, lips tinted pink in complicity. Despite Dad’s overall culinary incompetence, he had an instinctive, greedy sense of seasonality, so when grapefruit season rolls around, each flushed half is divided into segments and bathed in sugar like a giant fruit lozenge.
Cooking “with love” is a cliché that is spread everywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants to supermarkets. When I say that Dad couldn’t cook with anything else, it’s a tribute to his character rather than his skills in the kitchen – love and how to turn on the microwave was all I knew. Whether it was microwave-cooked Weetabix or Chicken Tonight chicken on saucepan mounds of rice, love was my father’s signature flavor; so it was around his table that my brother and I first learned that eating, as well as cooking, is an act of devotion. That when someone who loves you serves you dinner, they are putting more than food on your plate.
It was also there that we learned that our funny, kind, intelligent, and in every other way capable father was fallible. Meal by meal, bite by bite, we discover as children what many people don’t realize until adulthood: Parents aren’t perfect. Dad is still the smartest and most practical man I know, helpful with homework, able to answer any questions and translate even the most complex K-Nex assemblies into monster trucks and Ferris wheels. That the most basic cooking could reduce him to cursing in a microwave didn’t diminish it in our eyes, but the passing sight of a defeated adult served us well in an adult world in which most people are getting out of the way.
If anything, his ineptitude was endearing, with its idiosyncratic mix of style and failure, luxury and worldliness. The grapefruit was sliced with a grapefruit knife and served with serrated-edged spoons. We spread our I can’t believe it’s not butter with a butter knife. In August, the corn on the cob came with crampon-shaped grips for the puddle of vegetable grease that it slid and slipped on. What Dad lacked in skill he made up for with custom cutlery. Although the execution was often poor, he was so involved in the idea of these meals it was impossible not to be carried away by his enthusiasm.
What mattered to him, even more than the fancy tools, was that we were around the same table. Given the emotional antennas that children of divorced parents invariably develop, we knew it too, and we enjoyed our meals with as much volume and affection as possible. We screamed the Chicken Tonight jingle and screamed in disgust when Dad flashed a grin full of corn kernels: “I’m saving some for later,” he joked.
Dinner at Mom’s house was definitely tastier and less chaotic, it arrived on time and with a lot less effort. There was an air of complicity in the meals with Papa: a devoted and joyous camaraderie. They were fun. They were ridiculous: the meals themselves and our riffs around them. Dad has always been able to laugh at himself. “What are you going to say about that shit ?!” he snorted, when I told him I was writing about his cooking.
However, I was obsessed with the fragility of those moments around her kitchen table; the sense in which they were often shaped by pain. During the six years between the divorce and his meeting with my now-stepmother, Melanie, I would feel responsible for my father’s happiness. That he was a successful lawyer with a strong group of friends, and that I was a seven-year-old prone to looking The Snowman in repeating and crying dramatically, it was irrelevant; if anything, my anxiety was compounded by how unqualified I was for my undesignated position. He ate his meals and when he was home late from the office I would stay up to eat with him or at least have a hot chocolate: “I couldn’t believe how late you were going to sleep some nights,” Melanie now remembers. Although this self-imposed burden lessened with her marriage and Dad’s “withdrawal” from the kitchen, it resurfaced when I developed an eating disorder as a teenager and discovered that it was Dad who felt most guilty about the pain when he pushed half-eaten plates of food. outside.
It was my mother and, at Daddy’s house, Melanie, who would bear the brunt of this illness when it came, and they both did it bravely. That’s another history; More pertinent to this is that the arrival of Melanie, with our two now brothers, not only transformed the food on our table; swept away the swirls of vulnerability below him. The laughter remained, actually intensified with the addition of three people whose sense of the ridiculous was at least as acute as ours, and with the raucous, big-family dynamic we created. Dad was noticeably relieved. Freed from the microwave, he retired to the chores he enjoyed: washing up, loading the dishwasher, and making every meal an occasion, with custom cutlery, Waitrose’s strange unnecessary gift, and, when we were old enough, wine.
Cooking is complicated; both the act itself and our reasons for doing it. Eating may be necessary, but cooking, in this age of fast food, snacks and ready meals, is not. When I cook for others, it is because I want to. I care about them sure, but I also enjoy it and hope to impress with my efforts. Dad, on the other hand, put on his apron for the same reasons parents with no athletic ability kick a ball: not because he wanted to or needed it, but because he knew we’d be healthier and happier if he did.
Faced with technical and emotional struggles, these meals were a triumph of taste and union. They forged a terrifying trio spirit that lives within our beloved family of six. Dad wasn’t the only one who was relieved when we discovered Melanie’s dinners – her creamy fish cake was heaven, her baked rice pudding a sweet balm after years of Ambrosia. Yet despite all the swearing, wobbly eggs, and pulverized Weetabix, I wouldn’t have missed Daddy’s dinner years and my heart still flutters at the bright, encouraging sound of the microwave.
Clare Finney is a food writer; @finneyclare
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism