Every year, for somewhere between two and four weeks, my 86-year-old Greek father-in-law comes to visit. During that time, my house is full of the steams and smells that only someone born in Europe before the war can truly produce.
My children feast on chicken simmered for days with garlic and on crispy potatoes that melt on your tongue. And my kitchen is coated with so much olive oil that I want to cry. There is oil on the refrigerator door, in the cat’s bowl, in little glimmering pools along the stove. There is oil sputtering up from beneath the beef that he swears cooks only in its own juices and in the potato pancakes that taste lighter than air. There is so much oil, and so much salt, that I swear we’re all going to die before breakfast. But of course we don’t, and morning finds us only licking the bowls of whatever bits are left from the previous night’s feast. Because he has found, I’m sure, the secret of life: fat, in large quantities, stirred slowly with love.
When he was younger, my father-in-law fought the Nazis and the communists and survived a famine so severe that villagers took to eating the ancient staves of corn that lined the roofs of their chicken coops. He is not afraid of growing old or of falling on the ice-slicked streets of Toronto, where he spends the winter months. He is only afraid of bad food, which means, so far as I can tell, any food he hasn’t cooked himself. I’ve tried making him toast and grilled fish and chicken, all to no avail. The toast has butter, or has been near butter or knows another piece of bread that once associated with butter, which he won’t eat. The fish didn’t come from the Mediterranean, and the chicken just wasn’t good, like his chicken. The man regularly crosses the Canadian border laden with three full suitcases of food—olives, chocolate, taramosalata, cheese, and nowadays, bread, since apparently there is no place in New York to get good bread. He cannot believe that we live so far away from Greek groceries and still survive. When my husband took him to a fine Greek restaurant that he had reviewed well in advance, my father-in-law declared it okay, but not good. He rolled his fish in a napkin and took it home to cook it again. The right way.
It’s a running joke in our household, the way that Papou (Greek for grandfather) insists on cooking for us all; the way in which he imposes his affection through precisely measured dribbles of honey and cinnamon. Yet I’ve also started to notice that I do it too. Not with olives or fish, perhaps, and not with the same time and attention that he brings to the task, but with something that approaches the same level of obsession. When my three kids were younger and I was struggling to get tenure at Harvard, I fell every evening into a familiar she-bat-out-of-hell routine: dashing through the grocery store, running in the door and throwing chicken, potatoes and broccoli around the stove top and into dinner. None of this was really necessary. My husband would have been happy to plunk some pork chops on the grill. My children would have been ecstatic with nonstop macaroni and cheese. It was I who needed to cook; I who needed the ancient identity that seemed to cling to sticks of melting butter and wafting smells of meat. So what, I told myself, if my boys’ pants dangled occasionally around their ankles and my daughter’s socks refused to match? Who cares if I had missed the last PTA meeting—and the 17 before that? I had a pot roast on the stove, goddammit. I was good.
As my children grew from babies to teenagers, food became an integral, intricate part of our lives. Other families had scrapbooks and cousins, camping trips or communal prayer. We had food. Food that eventually became its own kind of ritual,elaborate and predictable as catechism. On Thanksgiving: turkey, stuffing, two kinds of potatoes, carrots, green beans, and that horrible jelled cranberry sauce my middle son refused to live without. On Christmas, it was salmon, rib roast, and cookies—four kinds, extra nuts, no exceptions. Sometimes, when calendar collisions meant that Passover, Easter and Greek Orthodox Easter, all fell at once, we mixed and matched with culinary obsession: matzo ball soup, lamb, ham, eggs and wiggly Jell-O bunnies. None of this was exactly gourmet fare. But I kept cooking and we kept eating, testifying to the only gospel that our family’s diverse ancestry seemed to share: Food equals love. Amo cookat. Amat eatat. Or something like that. If I love you, I will cook. And if you love me, you will eat.
My father-in-law is walking a bit slower these days. The cold bothers him and he naps more frequently than I remember. But when we picked him up at the airport last week, the suitcase was still there—one shirt, one pair of socks, two pounds of raisins, a bag of almonds, and some cheese. He is cooking. We are good. —Debora Spar, Originally published on Oprah.com
Photograph by Steve DeCanio