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Gillian Clark Headshot

How to Raise a Chef

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Is it any wonder that I cook for a living? My father died June 1st two years ago, six months after discovering that his prostate cancer had invaded his bones. I'm not sure the cancer killed my Daddy. It may have been more the tumor pressuring his spine and affecting his walk. The cane and walker were not what my father wanted in his life. There was just one too many trips to the ER and this time he asked my brother Jason to leave him alone. He let them poke and prod him a little more while he planned his escape. This time he wasn't strong enough to slip into his jeans. He just stopped urging his heart to continue beating. "Okay... that's enough," he quietly declared.

I learned a lot in my father's kitchen. For every occasion there was food. There were hot cross buns on Easter Sunday. Thanksgiving, Daddy cooked all day. There was lemon meringue pie because he felt like it. There was my wedding. My father tried to talk me out of marrying my ex-husband. During a visit one summer, Hakim showed up with no eyebrows. He'd gotten drunk and shaved them off. This was evidence of some deep internal conflict, as far as my father was concerned. But still he made my wedding cake -- three tiers of tender genoise, with lavender butter cream flowers cascading down from the first tier to the fat round on the bottom. When Christmas came around, it was the fruitcake that dominated.

Say what you will about fruitcake. Frank Clark made the only edible fruitcake in the civilized world. Folks drove miles to our house to wish us happy holidays, but more to get their annual cake. Fruitcake production started on Christmas Eve a year in advance. The neon colored fruit sat in brandy and rum in a big plastic bucket to be ready for the all night production that began exactly one year later. The cake was baked first in a small tin cup so that my mother and (as my palette became more trustworthy) I could taste it and tell Daddy that the crust was too hard (add less sugar), the cake was too fine (add less milk). My father made a variety of sizes. Several dozen baked in a muffin tin, and then there were the cake rounds of 6, 9 and 12 inches. I would watch the procession, carefully noting who warranted the muffin of fruitcake and who deserved the prized 9-inch round. Of course, good friends got the bigger fruitcake. But even the lowly muffin-getters left the house with a giddy expression and a spring in their step.

Daddy liked to experiment in his kitchen. There was the surprise of rugelach one day. There was often a new casserole in the oven. These weren't always successes. The new stuffing recipe got a huge thumbs down and even my father chuckled to himself as he tumbled the leftovers into the trash on top of the recipe he'd cut out of the paper. When he discovered the perfect cheesecake recipe, he was sure to tell me about it.

His best work was the food he'd cooked for years. In the produce aisle he'd choose a coconut. There was no recipe written down and no measuring. In the cart were the yellow cans of pigeon peas with the smiling man with the straw hat -- the brand I grab myself today. I'd come to the kitchen in time to watch my father whack that coconut open with a hammer and catch the milk in a measuring cup. He'd grate the brown and white flecks into the rice.

The day after he died, we arranged for my father to be cremated and compiled photos and letters to celebrate the man who was my greatest inspiration. We called friends and family, trying hard to hold it together while we pronounced the horrible news. Then we talked about the food. Aside from the memories -- and there are many -- there is the food. We talked of who had what recipes and did anyone know how to make Daddy's peas and rice, stewed chicken, the casserole with Spam and Velveeta, the pineapple upside-down cake -- my father's food needed to survive him. We discovered that we were all cooking his food. Before we even knew his time on earth was coming to an end, he was living on in all of us.

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