“What are you doing, Dad?” I ask. My 81-year-old father is pouring water precisely to the line marked 16 ounces on the measuring cup. He has done it four times.
“It says add two quarts of water,” he explains, looking on the back of the pasta box, “and I intend to do just that.” I watch, astonished that anyone would care about such levels of precision. But I say only, “Yum.”
“Smart ass,” he responds, and then proceeds to do the same for the pasta, shaking the measuring cup to make sure the contents have settled. I am responsible for the sauce, a fact that Dad is happy about until he turns to me and asks, “Where’s the recipe?”
“In my head.” Dad shakes his but resists the urge to say anything. We have similar natures: Tell us something isn’t going to work out, and we’ll kill ourselves to prove you wrong. I sauté andouille sausage, shrimp and Vidalia onions until the mixture is golden and fragrant, then finish it with fresh thyme and a little cream. Although Dad declares the result “flipping amazing,” we have different approaches to cooking—and to life, which started with the creative way I mowed the lawn as a child, by cutting my name into the grass or carving out a big cake and then dividing it into slices. Dad preferred the grass be cut in a more orderly manner, or at least so you couldn’t see a giant jan etched into it.
I was always a little more out there than my conservative siblings. It’s not that I’m the black sheep of the family; I’m more like the tie-dye sheep, tree hugging, granola crunching, peace loving. I’m concerned about the environment, Dad’s concerned about big oil; I think war is madness, Dad thinks it’s a great idea; I think everyone should have health insurance, Dad thinks the deadbeats should fend for themselves. The last political conversation we had was when I was in college and I decided to discuss my stance on nuclear energy. He considered it clean, I considered it dangerous. The argument became so heated that we risked a nuclear meltdown of our own, so I dropped the subject and never brought it up again.
But the one place we always got along was the kitchen, which is where we find ourselves on this particular night, cooking dinner in our own distinct ways. I’m in my fifties and divorced, Dad is now a widower, and I am visiting for the week. My daughters, his garden and his Jack Russell terrier, Bonnie, all make their way into our dinner conversation, the last quite literally as she leaps onto our laps—first his, then mine, then back to his again. Politics stays off the table. Cake recipes work their way on.
I’ve made a blueberry-peach crumble for dessert. Cinnamon, sugar and summer-ripe fruit bubble away in the oven, the fragrance heady. Dad is regaling me with my grandmother’s orange pound cake recipe, which I am fascinated to hear derives its name from the ingredients: a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound, as Dad tells it anyway, of eggs. I get up to check on our dessert; its color reminds me of the setting Wyoming sun outside the kitchen window.
We both learned to cook from Dad’s mother. Most of our family vacations were spent visiting her and my grandfather in Alabama. After driving all day from Texas, we’d pull into the tree-lined drive to see Grandma standing on the back porch with her apron on, having spent the entire afternoon cooking. Out we’d tumble from our wood-paneled station wagon right into Grandma’s arms, and then straight from there to her kitchen. A typical dinner was fried okra, salmon croquettes, coleslaw and buttermilk corn bread. And then there was dessert: some variety of chocolate cake, peanut butter cookies and sweet, sweet Southern peaches.
My mother, on the other hand, couldn’t make toast. Really. She burned it every morning, then scraped off the blackened part and buttered it anyway, with margarine instead of the real thing. Dinner, too, was something we dreaded. About once a week, the oven erupted in flames from the grease that had dripped onto the heating element. Mom would snatch out the offending pan, douse the fire with salt and return the food to the oven. Dinner was served.
So Dad started cooking for selfish reasons; he was tired of charred Frito Pie. Dad was a pharmacist by trade, and his chemistry know-how came in handy. His sauces were emulsified, his sautéed onions caramelized, his salmon perfectly seared. Mom, the first to recognize her shortcomings, was happy to turn over the reins.
Now when we cook together, Dad can relive his childhood, and I can remake mine. My father knows that producing beautiful meals is one of my ways of ensuring that despite divorce, my children have a warm and loving home. As I watch him now, digging into his pasta with gusto, I know that in the kitchen, I earn his respect.
“I need to leave room for dessert,” Dad says, pushing his salad away while reaching for more garlic bread. He has stage 4 prostate cancer but is convinced he is going to beat it. He survived a childhood in Depression-era Alabama, where his family was so poor, he swears his grandmother sifted the dirt on the floor for salt. Cancer? “No problem,” he says. “I’m going to whip the fool out of this thing.” I believe him, too. As he devours his food, he doesn’t look like a dying man to me.
“He must be wasting away,” a friend says when I recount the litany of illnesses he is suffering from. In addition to cancer, my father has congestive heart failure, congenital lung disease and only one functioning kidney.
“Nope, not Dad,” I reply. “The man loves to eat.” When one of his children isn’t there to monitor meals, his caregiver feeds him a steady diet of red meat, processed foods and ice cream, all, he insists, doctor approved.
Six months later, I am back in Wyoming looking at a man I grew up thinking was a cross between John Wayne and James Bond. But this time, he isn’t wearing his cowboy boots or shooting clay targets or telling tall tales with his buddies. Instead, he is wadded up in his recliner with an oxygen tube in his nose, his skin as gray as the ashes from the cigars he used to smoke. The table beside him is cluttered with pill bottles, crumpled paper towels, empty water glasses and the Wall Street Journal.
“What have you been eating, Dad?” I ask. “A little Jell-O,” he mumbles. “Chocolate Ensure.” Jell-O and Ensure? This I can’t digest. Dad has been telling all of us that he is fine, that the chemo is working. This is a man who used to blow snakes’ heads off with a shotgun when they slithered into our backyard in Texas, then chop the bodies with a hoe for good measure. Now he can’t stand up on his own.
He perks up a bit, though, happy for my company, and we spend the rest of the afternoon remembering old times. I regale his caregiver with stories about growing up in small-town Texas and working in our family pharmacy—the time old man Stephens got locked in the store overnight, the asphidity we sold to people to keep away the “evil spirits,” Miss Louise and the way she used to run her tongue around that strawberry ice cream cone.
“We had a lot of fun, Jannie,” Dad says, laughing. “But we didn’t know it at the time.”
“Well, we know it now, Dad,” I tell him, “and that’s all that matters.”
Then, because it’s what we’ve always done, I cook a feast for him—chicken stuffed with goat cheese and dried cherries, oven-roasted asparagus and his mother’s chocolate Coca-Cola cake, a recipe so delicious that when I make it for my children, they eat it straight out of the pan with a spoon.
But Dad eats almost nothing. He is exhausted. I sit across from him, choking down my food, hoping against hope that the love I have poured into our dinner will magically cure him, even if I am the only one eating. Fat tears fall onto my plate as I watch him doze in and out of consciousness. For the first time, food can’t heal either one of us.
“You don’t understand, Jannie,” he says when I wave the cocoa-scented cake under his nose in an attempt to entice him. “Nothing matters.”
I feel as if I’ve been socked in the heart. It is then that I realize my father has finally met a challenge he can’t overcome, and no Coca-Cola cake or determined daughter is going to change that. I put the cake away, then climb into his bed with a book so every time he opens his eyes he’ll see that I’m there.
Grandma’s Coca-Cola Cake
Makes 20 servings
2 cups all-purpose flour
9 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ cups (3 sticks) butter, softened
1¾ cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk
1 and 1/3 cups Coca-Cola
1 (16 ounce) box confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 cup toasted chopped pecans
1½ cups miniature marshmallows
1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan; set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 4 tablespoons of the cocoa and the baking soda; set aside.
2. Place 1 cup of the butter in a large bowl. Add the sugar, and beat with an electric mixer until creamy. Beat in the eggs and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla until well blended. In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk and 1 cup of the cola. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture alternately with the cola mixture, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients; blend well with each addition. Turn batter into prepared pan.
3. Bake about 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. While cake is baking, make the icing: In a large bowl, combine the remaining 5 tablespoons cocoa, ½ cup butter, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/3 cup cola with the confectioner’s sugar. Beat with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Stir in the pecans.
4. While cake is hot, top with the marshmallows. If they don’t melt, put the cake back in the oven for a minute until they do. Spread frosting over the marshmallows while the cake is still warm (it will be runny at this point but will firm up when the cake has cooled).