Today is my dad’s birthday. He would be 75 years old today. I have to do the math every year, thinking, ‘Okay, he was born in 1946...he was 60 when he died in 2006...and it’s 2021 now, soooo...75? Yeah, 75.’ And then for good measure I count on my fingers, starting with the thumb on my left hand, thinking ‘1956, ‘66, ‘76, ‘86, ‘96, ‘06, ‘16…’ pausing briefly on every count to ponder the nature of each decade and the flash of memories it evinces before quickly breezing by, fingertip to fingertip so as not to get completely stuck in the mental quicksand of trying to grasp the scope of all the life squeezed into and pulled out of those seventy-five years.
I do have a tendency to get lost in thought. Replaying memories, making observations, and drawing new conclusions based on the benefit of hindsight and changing perspectives brought to me by age, experience, and of course, the invaluable self-reflection and family of origin analysis of therapy. [insert snappy advertisement jingle and cue voiceover] “Therapy! You may not think you need it, but you probably do!” I used to say that the world would be a better, kinder, more understanding place if like, ya know how certain countries have mandatory military service? But, instead of the military, everyone was assigned one year of mandatory restaurant work, rotating through front and back of house positions. I always thought that could work. Now I just think everyone needs therapy. I am unbelievably fortunate to have access to an incredible therapist, and I wish the same for everyone else. There might be great pain to process, but with it comes the potential for great relief as well. Everyone deserves some relief from the weight of all they carry around silently, I think.
February is a month full of whammies for me. February: it’s Dad’s birthday, then Brendan’s birthday, then Otto’s adoption anniversary...and they’re all dead. First Dad, then Brendan's sudden death, and then right after Brendan my sweet dog Otto died suddenly as well. It still makes very little sense to me. It still seems preposterous. Like when you go into the walk-in for something but can’t remember what. It’s confounding. These formerly sweet occasions have taken on an astringent taste, which I try to process as I do most other things, through cooking and writing. I try to honor the love I still carry by making foods I wish I could share with them. It’s something, at least.
The first thing that typically comes to mind when I think about my dad’s birthday is cake. Year after year, there was no question as to what cake it would be. He always only wanted the same thing—chocolate cake with coffee frosting—and there was comfort in that consistency and in the certainty of knowing something.
Looking back on my childhood, perhaps through rose-colored glasses, I’d always considered it to be relatively good. But now I see things perhaps a little more honestly, including the red flags of—or signs and symptoms of—what I’ve come to know as my anxiety disorder. Ex: Every time my parents went out together I’d sit in the front window and stare out at the driveway waiting for them to come back, all the while envisioning the worst things happening, them dying, and having to go live with either my godfather or godmother, and then worrying about what that would look like. Ex: Being preoccupied with an inordinate amount of worry about all the unknown things out of my control, even down to which parent would be making dinner and what that might be.
Would I have to choke something down and clean my plate for fear of knowing that to vocalize criticism or dislike might risk an explosive reaction and or being iced out? Maybe. But on Dad’s birthday at least there would be cake, and cake was always good. I would go head-to-head with the soggiest, mushiest plate of boiled-beyond-belief cauliflower or otherwise expired or borderline decomposed food snuck onto the dinner table as required, anything to get to a piece of cake. And birthdays typically brought a lightheartedness to even the most tense of dysfunctional family dinners, even if it meant letting all unspoken thoughts and feelings fester to avoid conflict. Birthdays brought us all together in a haze of jolly forgetfulness to all the other bullshit and minutiae that the next day was sure to bring.
This year with his birthday falling on Super Bowl Sunday, I’ve been thinking about some of my dad’s other food traditions. He was the great cook in our family, and weekends meant he could invest time in bigger projects once he was done with grocery shopping, household chores, and firehouse related things. He kept very, very busy. He was one of those people that does so much it’s impossible to know and appreciate it all until it stops getting done. Come Super Bowl Sunday, if he wasn’t making venison stew with meat from a deer he shot in the fall hunting season, then Dad would be making chili. And he prepped with a cheerful pep in his step at the sheer excitement of knowing a tasty meal was in the near future as he worked next to the sink, washing and chopping while sipping from a can of beer as the small kitchen television hummed on with pre-Super Bowl excitement in the background. He seemed to delight in those moments.
One year he got a bread machine and began making his own bread to accompany the stew or chili we’d be having for dinner. It’s hard to believe in this golden epoch of pandemic pain au levain microbakeries, but at the time I remember marveling at the unbelievable novelty of someone making their own bread! In my mind, bread was soft and squishy and came sliced in a bag from the supermarket, except for on weekends when we got hard rolls from the bakery after church. How special was my dad, then, that he could even make his own bread to share with us?
The bread machine very closely resembled R2-D2, and I’d stare at it with concern when it kicked into its kneading stage and rattled back and forth on the kitchen table as if it was about to propel itself through the roof and off into space, taking part of our dinner with it off to chase Voyager’s Golden Records. It made so. much. noise.
The resulting loaves of bread were doughy, spongey, pale as the driven snow and soft with a dense crumb and a flavor so uncomplex and underdeveloped it could have been marketed as an artisanal version of Wonder Bread. Basically the opposite of the crusty-eared, open-crumbed, long-fermented bread supermodel darlings of today, but to me it was awe-inspiring perfection. I loved it so and would forgo all the perfect sourdoughs on Instagram and Breadit to get my hands on a loaf of my dad’s homemade bread again. It smelled incredible: the scent of fresh baked bread mingling with the spice of a simmering chili. Once we were called to dinner, Dad would slice the bread while it was still hot—what I know now is a big no-no—and my hand would be tingling at the ready to snatch a slice as a matter of priorities as soon as grace had been said.
The fact that my place at the table was at Dad’s right hand was most auspicious, both for access to the food he was serving as well as for the benefit of being able to observe a parent who ate and enjoyed the food they made unabashedly, wholeheartedly, shamelessly. When he ate something good he would often react, almost in a way reminiscent of how Food Network hosts do, as if for an audience, saying something like “Ohhhh baby that’s goo-ood!” Lol. Very similar to Justin Wilson, actually, I’ve come to realize. Perhaps even inspired by. Another thing I’ll never get to ask.
Once I finally had my bread I could relax a bit, or as much as any kid can at a dinner table with three other hungry siblings, engaged in a battle to scarf down all the good eats before they were left with none. I was, and am, a slow eater. I would take my sweet time to diligently, evenly, and meticulously spread an XL pad of butter (and sometimes, as it were, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!) across the slice from crust to crust before taking a big, little bite. After that first bite, it was into the stew or chili for the rest of the slice, dunking and scraping and scooping and devouring and relishing in all the deliciousness. Oh how I wish my dad had written down his recipes. I have tried many times to recreate his stew, albeit with beef instead of venison, but as delicious as it can be, it is never quite right.
Now, I don’t want to be misleading here and say that his chili wasn’t special, because it was, but put in the unfair position of being compared to his stew, well, in my mind everything is generic swill when going up against that perfect iteration of a deeply flavorful, well-seasoned, perfectly braised meat based comfort food. Would that his venison stew were to be my last meal on Earth, well, undoubtedly I’d be departing with a smile on my face and an empty bowl at the table. So, sorry chili to have to follow that act, but revel in having the distinction of being the attainable version of that which will forever elude me. For this chili, unlike all my beef stews, its taste is not diminished by my memory.
I’ve come to adopt a pretty standard version of chili that I make without really thinking about too much, and apparently I decided to make it official on October 15th, 2017 when I made the smart decision to write it down so there is a record of it. I have it listed in one of my old Moleskine notebooks under the title of “Best Ever Chili (Ryan says this is the best chili I’ve ever made lol)”. Now, I’m not one to toot my own horn, at all, but I think I’d like to be. Or at least to give it a try. Ryan cracks me up, in that he is often proclaiming things I make to be “the BEST so and so he’s ever had,” and because I’m not good at taking compliments I often laugh, but duly make note of his opinions so that I can replicate the success. This “best ever” version of chili reminds me of my dad’s, but also pulls from a recipe at a restaurant I once worked where making a big batch of it would be on my prep list a couple times a week, and after a few years of doing so, well, it just starts to settle into the muscle and food memories.
I believe my dad would have liked this chili, for sure, although at first I wondered if the cayenne and chipotle would make it just a wee bit too spicy for him, but I don’t think so. It’s hard to say for sure though, because his tastes were absolutely changed in his last years by cancer and its treatments. But I find reassurance against this doubtfulness in my memories, as the recollection of him encouraging seven year old me to try steak au poivre for the first time comes to mind. It must have been a special occasion, because we were at his favorite fancy restaurant. I wanted steak, but the only offering for that was steak au poivre. He wasn’t big on us kids asking for substitutions at restaurants. I think he wanted us to be great eaters. He really wanted us to try foods as they were offered, and on this occasion he was betting that the deluge of peppercorns wouldn’t be too spicy for me—it turns out he was right. And, coincidentally I think, proud to have an adventurous eater in the family. I dare say that steak au poivre turned me into a pepper fiend, now that I think about it. Nothing ever came close to having enough black pepper on it after that, and I kind of became obsessed with having fresh cracked black pepper handy at all meals. Hmmm...interesting. I'm always learning things about myself all the time.
It’s a bitter cold and snowy day where I am. Snow already on the ground and more snow coming down as it does, all fresh, quiet, and clean. Everything I see, do, and touch seems to remind me of my dad today. From my morning coffee and the banana I put in my oatmeal to the fact that while eating breakfast I was already thinking about dinner, already thinking about the details of washing, prepping, peeling, measuring, chopping, stirring, tasting, observing, and breathing in all the good scents.
Looking out my kitchen window I’m picturing the snow falling and piling silently up around the gravestone in the cemetery where Dad is, next to Brendan. Thinking of them in that cold, quiet place, slowly being covered by a blanket of snow is just about as far away as it gets from the memories of warm birthday celebrations—of candles burning brightly against the darkness of winter, dripping droplets of colorful wax onto the smooth frosting below while from our hearts we sang and burbled on about happiness, wishes, and the sweetness of cake—I loved our loud (with me possibly being the loudest of all), imperfect family and Super Bowl Sundays with a hot bowl of chili and fresh baked bread so warm it instantly melts the butter. I’m wishing I could visit my dad today, albeit at his grave. But that will have to wait for the time being. Until travel feels safe again. If travel feels safe again. Instead, I’m trying to remember him in happier times. In the moments before. I am so perpetually curious about what life was like in the moment before my world got rocked. It’s so hard to remember now.
I often wish, so desperately, that I had the chance to cook for my dad nowadays. I wish that he could see the positive impact he had on my perception of food. I wish I could thank him for showing me that it’s much better to enjoy food than to loathe it. He would be proud, I like to think—I have to think—of the cook I’ve become. I like to think that if my dad were still alive I could make this chili for him one birthday Super Bowl Sunday, like today. Maybe he’d bake some bread. And my mom and sister would make cake, just like old times. And we’d sit around the table, everyone in their place, no empty chairs, and live on, with the love and understanding of one another that being a member of a family is all about. Hearts, table, and bellies all full.
Yield: about 3 quarts
Choose your own cooking adventure. Prep/mise everything beforehand or hit the ground running and do it all as you go.
Hello! I'm Kat.
Cooker, baker, amateur pottery maker.
I'm a CIA graduate (culinary arts & applied food studies) who previously studied anthropology.
Food obsessed. Anxiety disorder. Grief bearer.
Here you'll find recipes for what I'm currently feeling and sometimes even why!