As a girl, I worshipped him and also wished he were somehow different. While other dads could be found in the backyard, firing up the grill, enjoying beer and burgers with their buddies, my dad worked late and on weekends. He'd sometimes come home so utterly exhausted that he'd barely say a word when he pulled his car into the driveway. I think my friends were scared of him. Whereas their dads hung out in jeans and corduroys and cool sweatshirts, my dad was always in a jacket and tie. Silently, he watched the evening news.
He rarely shouted at us, but he was serious and often taciturn. "You'll see when you grow up," my mother would say, explaining how difficult things could be at a hospital, even for a talented surgeon, if you speak with an accent and you look different.
His culinary lessons to me were strictly practical: He explained why I could put lemon or milk in my tea but not both; he showed me why it made sense to add salt to sweeten pineapple; and he taught me that when a mango turns ripe, you can smell it, and there's some give to the flesh when you press it but your finger's imprint doesn't stay. I learned from him a respect for the purity of taste. He ate his fruits straight, as if they were sacred. To this day, as much as I cherish mangoes, I'm unmoved by mango chutneys, salsas, and sauces, and by the odd concoctions whipped up by loquacious chefs on TV. I prefer instead to eat the fruit plain or tossed in a salad, where the slices are big enough for the flavor to sing out.
For my father, there was no need to wax poetic about food. If it tasted bad, you'd toss it. If it tasted good, you'd drive, walk, or fly as far as necessary to find more of it. That's all. But every once in a while, he'd cut loose a little, and I'd see this genuine passion for food—and life—brimming within.
It happened every year when we took family vacations to tropical islands. There, vendors would chop up bighearted, gorgeous fruits—including the freshest mangoes I've ever eaten—and offer them, with a welcoming smile, in giant plastic cups. My father, in his goofy Balinese-print swim shorts and Charles Nelson Reilly reading glasses, would spy one of the stalls across the beach, and his eyes would light up. I loved that—that look of pure joy. My mother would shake her head. "You don't know how clean it is!" she'd warn. (She trusts no one and insists on eating only cooked food in unfamiliar places.) But my father, groping for his wallet in the beach bag, would trek across the hot sand anyway, my sister skipping alongside him.
We Hear You!