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Cooking by the book, bonding off–script

I texted my dad the other day to show him a recipe I’d found – he responded pretty much right away with excitement, declaring he’d try his hand at it in a few days. Waiting to hear how it goes is providing more anticipation than any March Madness prediction he could ever come up with.

When I was 10 years old, we moved out of a house where the local Safeway was just a couple blocks away. Part of my family’s nightly routine then involved waiting for my dad to return from the grocery store.

This was around the time I noticed my dad’s interest in cooking light up – whether it had been there all along, I’m not sure, but I’d at least been subscribing to the stereotype that my mom was the one who cooked, that she was in charge of all meals for the three of us. 

The fall of 2012 was when I noticed my dad’s fascination and enthrallment with the slew of recipes in an “America’s Test Kitchen” cookbook. On weekend afternoons, I started to find my dad passing the time by watching “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country” or reading “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine. 

Then, all of a sudden, the occasional dinner would be from that cookbook. We tried Nashville hot fried chicken, Chinese-style spare ribs and St. Louis-style pork steaks just for fun, these complex-looking recipes painstakingly followed to complete a dinner for three (sometimes just two, if my mom’s aversion to spice kept her out of the kitchen).

It didn’t take long for me to start perusing that cookbook myself, finding a fairly straightforward dessert recipe I could make without much trouble. 

I thought it excited my parents because it was genuinely a phenomenal fudge cake, but they were probably just relieved their 14-year-old son could follow simple instructions if given free reign over the kitchen for an evening.

I’m the youngest of my dad’s four kids by a long shot, and the only one who wasn’t a prolific athlete (my sister is in Skidmore College’s Athletics Hall of Fame, so if I were to pursue sports, the bar was pretty high). Sure, I played soccer when I was in elementary school, but, like, everyone does that when they’re that age, and I never had much fun doing it. 

The crown jewel of my soccer career was getting the wind knocked out of me during a game and becoming afraid of any sport with projectiles for the following six years. 

Case in point, the most traditionally masculine father-son bonding exercise, playing and watching sports, was a no-go from the get-go. I suffered through a year on my high school’s freshman rowing team as a coxswain before I decided I simply could not put another ounce of effort toward a sports team, professional or amateur.

But my dad and I have always connected on music, and now, ever since I picked up the cookbook and made that hot fudge pudding cake recipe, cooking.

For the next four years after I started piling sugary ingredients into a pan for fun, my high school career was decorated by my dad’s culinary experiments. 

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Whether it be a new spice rub to throw on a steak or a new stir-fry sauce to spice up chicken and vegetables, I was unknowingly witnessing my dad pick up cooking as a hobby. Even when I got a cookbook for my mom for Christmas 2016, it was my dad who cracked it open first to find a good pasta sauce recipe. (This past Christmas, I took the hint and instead gave my dad a burger-themed cookbook.)

When I’d moved into Thomson Hall almost four years ago, and no longer lived with my parents full-time, food was a way for me to connect with my dad from over 500 miles away. I’d send my dad anything I’d find on the internet that seemed remotely like an interesting recipe – anything from Facebook posts to online food magazine pieces was fair game. 

I went home over spring break 2017 to get my wisdom teeth out and, once my mouth had healed, my dad and I collaborated on a Korean-inspired rice recipe I’d found on a late-night YouTube marathon. While I was studying abroad, I was updating my dad constantly on what fun, new things I was eating. 

When I moved into an off-campus apartment last year, my dad gave me pointers on good cookware to have lying around and sent me back to school with packets of organic ramen and kits for making gourmet-looking dips.

Last spring, I became fascinated with Bon Appétit Magazine’s online content — I was late to class countless times because I wanted to watch Claire Saffitz make gourmet junk food. And so I sent those videos to my dad, too, and started trying out the recipes that the Bon Appétit chefs had made seem simple enough.

When I was at home at the tail end of recovering from a face rash last summer, I worked up enough confidence to independently cook pasta with mushrooms and prosciutto. I’d made it once before, it sounded expensive and grown-up-ish and my dad seemed interested, so I went for it.

Exposing literally anything I produce – recipe or not – to a public audience, let alone my family, is terrifying. So it was a huge moment of relief when I served the pasta to my dad, who seemed to love it even more than I did – I’d burned some of the prosciutto and was horrified that my dad was going to think I was incompetent after hyping up the recipe so much. 

He took the leftovers to work in the morning, and I felt incredibly accomplished.

I’ve inducted a handful of other recipes to my comfort zone since then and told my dad about each one. It feels almost countercultural to, on Thanksgiving, relate to my dad more on the food being served rather than the football game on TV, but that’s the way it is. And while I don’t think either of us has ever viewed the lack of traditional bonding as a roadblock, we found a workaround in the kitchen.