My dad was the first gastronomic influence in my life. As far as I can remember, my dad has been happiest in the garden. My childhood summers were full of fresh greens, potatoes, rhubarb, tomatoes, etc. One of my favorite pictures of my brothers was taken when Petie was approximately three and Charlie five. They are standing by the garden at our Maine house, beaming, holding carrots they had just picked from my dad's garden.
I have understood the importance of good food from a young age, and I attribute that to my dad.
Thus, it is not shocking that watching my dad choke down hospital food was nothing short of depressing. I was sitting on his hospital bed when the nurse came in with dinner. My dad turned to me and informed me that this was the most exciting part of his day. He unveiled his food; white rice, boiled baby carrots, and some yellow matter that I had to assume was “the protein.” I asked him what it was, “I think it's and omelette,” he said and dug in. He cut off a piece of the omelette, chewed for a second, and said, “Nope, chicken.”
I left the hospital, sad and tired. When I got home, I didn't have any energy to cook, and in a weird way, I felt guilty eating good food when I knew my dad didn't have the same luxury. Instead, I picked up M.F.K. Fisher's Long Ago in France, in which Fisher describes her gastronomic adventure in Dijon, France. Over the course of her recollection, food becomes a central character. Actually, aside from Fisher and her husband, food is the only lasting character. Her relationship with food and the dining experience parallels my dad's attitude toward food. They both understand that food comforts, physically and emotionally; it can incite happiness and excitement, and it can bring people together.
Fisher describes one of her most memorable dining experiences. She writes:
One bitter February Sunday when I stood panting on a hill near Les Laumes-Alesia, the earth was hard as granite beneath me, and air drawn into my tired lungs felt like heavy fire before it thawed. I broke a twig clumsily between my mittened fingers...“Here!” a voice said, roughly. I looked with surprise at the old general, who stood, shaggy and immense, beside me...he held out a piece of chocolate, pale brown with cold...In my mouth the chocolate broke at first life gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft, and melted voluptuosly into a warm steam down my throat. The little doctor came bustling up, his proudly displayed alpenstock tucked under one short arm...“Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady! Very bad for the interior, very bad...” And in two minutes, my mouth was full of fresh bread, and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill...peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten.
I apologize for the lengthiness of that passage, but I do believe that it encompasses the power that food can have in its most simplistic form. The mere act of eating bread and chocolate is the catalyst for this memorable experience. It reawakens Fisher's frozen self and gives her a sense of livelihood that had disappeared in the cold. In addition, three near strangers find their lives temporarily intertwined by sharing food with each other.
I know my dad will be out of the hospital soon, and the only thing I can hope is that he, like Fisher, will have a meal that will rejuvenate his morale and repair the emotional damage these past few weeks have caused.