Here’s one for them. To you, Dad:
Perhaps more than anyone else, my dad has taught me about food rituals — about the ways food can trigger the memory of a place or time or person — and about a kind of “low and slow” mindset.
It’s become a philosophy; originally advice for cooking eggs, it’s representative of an attitude, too. Linger a while. Enjoy what you’re eating. Enjoy who you’re eating it with. When I’m with Dad, we take our time. It’s always been this way. On Sundays, I feel the urge to replicate the lazy pancake mornings (pulling down the Joy of Cooking and splaying it open at the right page next to the electric griddle) and grilled cheese afternoons of my childhood. Dad’s the one who taught me to make piecrust from scratch. Together, we drink endless mugs of black tea and strong coffee, have a shared love of good bread and whole milk, and, when I visit, always squeeze in a breakfast date at our favorite diner.
I consider myself blessed to have been raised by not one, but two fathers.
My father, along with my mom, saw the five of us go from baby food to finger food to persnickety teen food. While my mom did most of the cooking, my suburban father manned the weekend grill: hamburgers, hot dogs or steaks. They entertained quite often and one party stands out, a clambake. I clearly recall my father digging large holes in our fenced-in yard, lining them with rocks and lighting fires, all so they could create an “authentic” clambake. Many years later, and married to a clammer, this scene still comically plays in my memory.
Sadly, my father passed away suddenly when I was 14.
A young widow with five children under the age of 15, my mom had the serendipitous good fortune to meet a confirmed bachelor (or so he thought), a teacher in our high school, who soon thereafter became our stepfather, Pops. Prior to his new role of stepfather, Pops traveled the world, savoring flavors and tastes far more exotic than those to which we suburban kids were accustomed to. Pops introduced us to (or at least he tried) tongue, head cheese, steak tartar, herring and a plethora of international cuisines. We had Russian, Mexican, Spanish, German and Scandinavian themed dinners, along with guests and foreign exchange students to match.
All these years later, my palate is still not tempted by some of his carnivorous enlightenment, but Pops has opened my eyes, taste buds and sensibility to a whole wide world of flavor. As he so often says, conjuring up an inner Auntie Mame, “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” Happy Father’s Day, Pops.
Making dinner reservations is a competitive sport for my crazy father. Before every vacation, he spends days researching restaurants and he would never risk visiting a country without having at least three meals a day booked. When we visited Copenhagen, he knew to call Noma exactly three months in advance, because if you’re a second past that time, you don’t stand a chance (unfortunately, dad was too slow and Noma was one big loss on his scorecard). Dad also helped plan my sister’s honeymoon next month, and hotel locations were chosen entirely around dinner spots. The top right photo here is of us at the Fat Duck outside of London (a major win), listening to the sounds of the sea on iPod minis placed in seashells as we eat some weird sashimi dish over “tapioca sand.”
My Dad, Michael Zavatto, is a great cook. Not a fancy cook; he doesn’t really care for super fussy, overwrought anything. But a cook who cares about how things are done: temperature and time; cooking with good ingredients and getting things right. The care of doing things well, from preparing for a meal through to the careful distribution of it onto your plate.
His parents emigrated from southern Italy with his two older sisters, Iris and Philomena; my Dad and his brother, Frank, born here. In that home, food mattered a lot. As a young man, sworn in with Whitey Ford, my Dad, was a cook in the Army during the Korean War. He learned a lot about food there, too. Later, he and my grandfather went into business together — a sweet little grocery store called John’s Market after my grandfather in East Rockaway, Long Island. At night and in any free time he had, he learned to butcher meat, apprenticing at night and reading books on the side (I have them now, yellowed and well-worn; a gift from him last year), an occupation that allowed him to raise four well-fed daughters comfortably and without want for anything significant.
He and I spend a lot of time with together these days. Pretty much, any time I can grab. When I was growing up, I didn’t worry so much about what I could or should learn from him — or, I just cared and worried more about whatever it is you care and worry more about when you’re younger. But now I do, and I ask a lot of questions and for advice, because there is nothing so wonderful as being able to ask your Dad questions and for advice; it’s like free money flying out of an ATM machine. A great, wonderful gift, and I am grateful for it. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you. Now teach me how to make sausage next, please.
If you want to see happiness, then visit my dad on his farm. It’s the same place he was born, raised and chose to have a family. He left once to go to college, but even then, he studied animal science and moved into the university’s dairy barn to be the resident student farmer (he took care of the cattle between classes in exchange for rent). He eventually settled back on the family farm to hopefully spend the rest of his days as equal parts dad and dairyman; I have a favorite childhood memory of him picking me up from daycare on the tractor on his way back home from the hay field.
In many ways, I feel like his love of the farm, and all that sustaining it has required over the years, has taught me some invaluable lessons. To me, his choice to pursue rotational grazing with a small herd of cows (when it was totally against the dominant “get big or get out” ag mentality) was less about technique than it was about his concern for the wellbeing of the creatures and land that relied on him. His choice to experiment with grasses and fodder for the cows was less about the quality of his final milk product than it was about curiosity and a desire to challenge his ability. And, eventually, his choice to forgo full-time dairy farming to raise his five kids and keep the farm land was less about restructuring his operation than it was about the value of personal sacrifice.
It’s not like farming is all that my dad has ever known, but more like it’s all he that he’s ever wanted to do. Although he only farms part-time these days, if you ask him what he’s up to, he’ll still list his “farm projects” first. Having four of five children out of the nest has allowed him to breed more cattle, build more fence and bale more hay than at most points during the last 18 years. And when I fly back home to North Carolina from New York, there’s always a good chance that he’ll pick me up at the airport in his farm truck with his cattle trailer hitched to the back. It’s just the way he is. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy — love you.
Don’t ask my dad what he wants for dinner. It doesn’t matter. He’s got other things to care about.
While he didn’t teach me much about cooking (other than adding pickle-jar juice to tuna salad), he loved to take us out like hunter-gatherers in Alaska, where I grew up. We were always catching salmon (silver, pink, coho, sockeye, king), or rainbow trout, or halibut, or king crab. Or picking buckets of the blueberries that grew everywhere (wearing “bear bells” so as not to surprise the grizzlies). Or foraging fiddleheads to cook in butter. Or tending peas and potatoes in a climate so cold I didn’t know what shorts were.
But the food at Juneau supermarkets was barely edible. We’d have spectacular fish one night and spaghetti the next, crowned with cheese from the Kraft canister. Or go skiing in what looked like pages of National Geographic and stop for cocoa made from Carnation packets. To dad, food was simply something to fuel life’s adventures. His energy went to his kids and, I now know, to his career.
By the time I was a teenage vegan, he was directing a U.N. program and suffered my scoldings about his egg salad sandwich even as he ran initiatives deactivating land mines and operating refugee camps. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize last year and his work takes him around the world: Argentina, Indonesia, Ethopia, Estonia.
When he’s back, all I ever ask is: “What did you eat?” But Dad can’t be bothered to remember the menu in Addis Ababa. He spends spare time running marathons, piloting airplanes and teaching his grandkids to ride bikes. My fishing rod is in the garage and when he’s back from Jakarta, I hope he’ll teach my daughter about bobbers and bait. But I won’t ask him to cook the catch. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
Ever since my sister and I were little kids, my Dad would take us on field trips near where he and my mom grew up in Southwestern Louisiana our near our own home in North Carolina. By the time I was out of college, I’d seen sugar being refined, rice being milled, traveled down long bumpy dirt roads to find commercial shrimping ports and visited all manner of crawfish ponds, grist mills, farms and various re-enactments of kitchen life in colonial North Carolina and Louisiana. (This past May we went to a brewery on a bayou, in fact, my grandmother included.) My Dad loves history, and makes a point to give us little bits of trivia from what he’s read or saw growing up as we drive, and he is just the best tour guide ever. I think it is his curiosity and love of exploration that I draw on today for my own job, but more importantly, I look forward to these trips every time I see him!
My dad has always been an extreme, opportunistic eater — whether it was when he went hardcore vegan to lose weight and reverse coronary heart disease, or when (his latest fad) he tries to incorporate mustard greens into every meal. And he’s not shy about it. I’ve seen him lambast James Beard-award-winning chefs for not using sea salt, bending their ear on the troubles with Kosher salt as they try to escape back to the kitchen. That enthusiasm has also meant he has taught me, my friends and my children more about food than I can remember. He took me on my first walks with Wildman Steve Brill, my first Peconic herring runs, reminds us all to make sumac lemonade in August, and has taught my children how to savor fish roe and milt. And it turns out some of this came from his own dad, my grandad. Here’s what he had to say about his own fishing upbringing: “My dad taught me to fish when I was four or five and I’ve had a lifelong passion for fishing and eating the fish that I catch. My dad liked to fish too, but I never asked him how he got interested in fishing, and now I will never have the chance. Kids are so ‘me, me, me’ and when we grow up and have grown children and grandchildren its too late to ask those questions. I miss my fishing dad.”
My dad is a classical musician and has the type of one-track mind you can really only find in pro athletes, chefs and artists. His relationship with cooking is fittingly single-minded; he fixates on one dish at a time and replicates it ad nauseum until he deems it perfect. Much like practicing the same thirty-second passage for months before a single performance, his recipe testing method involves making tiny changes in a recipe over the course of several weeks (or, in the case of his protein bar kick, months) and then completely abandoning it as soon as he gets it right. Our family has witnessed the rise of the perfect brownie, the perfect sweet potato pie and the perfect Swiss chocolate cake only to mourn their losses as Dad moves on to a new dish.
Dad’s been on a pimento cheese bender for a couple of years now, and he’s perilously close to achieving perfection. He’s tinkered with adding tequila, bourbon, cumin and raw garlic, and the precise cheese blend will undoubtedly become a guarded family secret. We can only hope that pimento cheese won’t go the way of cabbage tofu stir fry and bacon-infused bourbon (a collaboration with my mom that only lasted two batches). While his endless culinary revisions have had a hand in teaching me to be self-critical, appreciate the ephemeral, and exercise patience, I still really miss those brownies. Happy father’s day, Dad.
When I have a hankering for something sweet, dessert-like, or anything in a chocolate truffle, I can blame my dad. My mom is a lover of all things savory, but my dad and I—we love our rich, sweet end-of-the-meal treats. Though I wasn’t allowed many desserts as a young kid, as I got older my father taught me the important lesson that no dinner date between us is complete without a slice of chocolate cake. In fact, I became so accustomed to the tradition that when offered the dessert menu, my dad would scan the list, suggesting various options before looking at me from the perch of his glasses, knowing all the while that when the waiter came back I would order the chocolate cake (or whichever dish resembled it most closely). If we couldn’t have cake, chocolate ice cream would suffice.
No matter how much I loved sharing a delicate piece of torte with dad when we went out, I always preferred nights when he and I embarked on baking adventures at home. When I turned 16, he tried one on his own. He asked what I wanted as a birthday breakfast on my 16th year. What was intended to be a massive blueberry muffin-top resulted in something of a large pancake complete with a single candle in the middle. Thanks anyway for trying, Dad. On his 65th birthday last summer, he came to visit me on Martha’s Vineyard. As I sent him home on the ferry I asked what he’d like as a send off to which he replied: “Chocolate ice cream on a cone”…There wasn’t enough time for cake. Happy father’s day to you, my sweet-toothed Pop. I love you!
Every Sunday (and occasionally during the week) the smell of my dad’s famous grilled potatoes would waft through the house. Usually my sister and I would be roller skating outside or laying on the couches watching some weird 90s TV shows like Boy Meets World or Roswell (guilty). I can’t give away all of the details of the recipe, but here are the basics: diced potatoes, onions, chilies, bacon. Sounds simple, but my dad really does some magic with such few ingredients. In addition to the potatoes he would, of course, grill some steak as well. My sister was never a red meat eater, but I was. My dad and I could always rejoice together when enjoying a good steak. When the potatoes wrapped in foil were charred to perfection, he would serve them up with some sour cream on top. They were even better when the A1 sauce from the steak got into the mix on my plate. Over the years, my family has grown a little obsessed with my dad’s potatoes. At every family get together (and we are Mexican, so there are a lot) my dad pulls out the grill. He acts reluctant sometimes to always be the one having to cook, but I know deep down he loves it. And we all love his potatoes, and him too, of course!
In an age when cubicle-bound desk jockeys daydream of working with the land, my dad walks his talk. A couple of years ago, he quit his cushy job as a department director at Maine’s biggest hospital to work for twelve bucks an hour tending bees and bok choy. During the warmer half of the year, he now works at a farm-to-fork restaurant called Primo in Rockland, Maine. Hands in the dirt, cooing to the guinea hens, he’s honestly never been happier.
Not to get sappy, but I find his life path an inspiration. Because really, how many people do you know who left everything they knew to do what they love?