Food for the Soul: Remembering My Father Through Traditions in the Kitchen

Father and daughter cooking together in a kitchen.
Photo by Annushka Ahuja on Pexels

August 16, 2019 was the last time I saw my dad alive. He was eating a chocolate-covered strawberry ice cream bar and had jokingly stated that he wanted every box from the store. My grandma took him seriously and before long, she and I had driven to the discount store to buy every single container. Dad’s face lit up when we surprised him. Before I left my grandma’s house that night, I kissed Dad goodbye as he wrapped me up in one of his bear hugs. “Stay the night,” he asked. “I can’t, Dad. I have to work in the morning,” I answered. “I’ll wake you up,” he said. “I love you, Dad, but I better not tonight,” I said, and I kissed him once more and walked out the door.

The next day, I arrived home from work and received a phone call from my cousin. “Your dad is not breathing. Ambulance is on the way,” she wailed. My legs began to shake as I grabbed my keys off of the kitchen table. My little sisters stared at me in bewilderment as I ran out the door. My cousin called me back before I had put the keys in the ignition. “He’s dead,” she cried. 

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When I arrived at my grandma’s house, my brother and cousins were all sitting on the porch sobbing, my uncle had placed a sheet over Dad’s body, a few neighbors had gathered in the yard, and my grandma was in shock. After a few minutes, my mother arrived and wrapped my brother and me in her arms like we were little children once again. We waited for the coroner for what seemed like years, but in reality, was around an hour. We were all traumatized. We never had such a big loss in the family. Before they took Dad’s body away, I removed the sheet from his face and placed a kiss on his cold cheek. I didn’t want them to take him. He belonged here with us. 

Later that night, I went to fetch my grandma something from the deep freezer. Upon opening the lid, I was surprised to see all of the unopened boxes of ice cream and bags of frozen poke sallets he had picked a few weeks prior. The reality of the situation started to sink in. The tears would not stop streaming down my face and I could barely sleep. 

I tried a few different methods of coping with my grief. I started to read more than I had before. I wrote sad poetry. I plunged into fantasy worlds full of moving castles and talking cats trying to distract myself. One November day, I stumbled across a quote by Ernest Hemingway. The shortened version states, “Every man has two deaths, when he is buried into the ground and the last time someone says his name.” Suddenly, I got an idea: Cooking some of Dad’s favorite meals and sharing them with others may not be the same as having him here with me, but it could bring me comfort in knowing that it would help keep his memory alive. 

Dad always took pride in preparing delicious meals with simple ingredients to bring the family together. In the kitchen, he would blast Creedence Clearwater Revival and ZZ Top while preparing slabs of juicy pork chops and savory cornbread that would melt in our mouths.

My fondest cooking memories with Dad happened every year on “dumpling day,” my family’s tradition on New Year’s Day. The whole family comes together to roll out thin dough across the marble dining room table. Then, a few people use pizza rollers to cut out tiny squares, while another person stirs the large metal kettle full of boiling chicken on the stove. The kettle must be stirred constantly when the dumplings are added to ensure they will not get stuck together and create a burnt, clumpy mess. After all of our tedious labor, we sit around the table diving into the flavorful chicken ‘n dumplings, tart sauerkraut, and fresh coleslaw.

After my revelation that November, I began to cook Dad’s recipes. These meals included spaghetti with a special chili sauce, fresh tomato sandwiches with a slather of mayonnaise, and burritos full of garden-grown vegetables. I also started to forage around the nearby mountains, remembering his secret spots. I picked juicy blackberries off of bushes and popped more into my mouth than into the old milk jug I used to collect them in.

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Cooking helps me to feel connected with Dad because it was something we did together. We did not have a lot in common when it came to our political views, but when it came to our taste buds, we were quite alike. We were the only two at the dinner table to put our cornbread in a bowl of sweet milk or to put grape jelly on our scrambled eggs. 

Now, cooking alone becomes a time for me to relive our memories. I recall the sound of his deep voice giving me directions or the way his hands held a knife when he chopped onions, revealing a pointer finger injury from his childhood. 

Being able to share Dad’s favorite meals with other loved ones has been healing. In this way, it keeps his memory alive. My little sister had just turned 9 when our dad passed away. She didn’t help him around the kitchen as much as I did, and she was far too finicky to eat a lot of his food. Now, she loves it when I make Dad’s homemade lemonade and is willing to shuck green beans with me like he had done. Her face lights up when I tell her stories about his mishaps in the kitchen, like how he would get so distracted by dancing to his music that a pot would boil over.

My smile returned just in time for New Year’s Day in 2020 when I helped my grandmother prepare the dumplings. I noticed my little sister watching curiously with a face reminiscent of his. I pictured Dad chopping fresh cabbage up for coleslaw like he did the year before. Then I took my sister’s hand and said, “Let me show you how Dad did it.”

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