It's no surprise that Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, delights each year in serving scrambled eggs and waffles to 2,300 famished, sleep-deprived students on the night before final exams, a Barnard tradition called "Midnight Breakfast." She has learned from a certain hard-to-please role model that there is nothing more powerful nor comforting than simple food made with love.
Every year, for somewhere between two and four weeks, my 86-year-old Greek father-in-law comes to visit. During that time, my house is full of the steams and smells that only someone born in Europe before the war can truly produce. My children feast on chicken simmered for days with garlic and on crispy potatoes that melt on your tongue. And my kitchen is coated with so much olive oil that I want to cry. There is oil on the refrigerator door, in the cat's bowl, in little glimmering pools along the stove. There is oil sputtering up from beneath the beef that he swears cooks only in its own juices and in the potato pancakes that taste lighter than air. There is so much oil, and so much salt, that I swear we're all going to die before breakfast. But of course we don't, and morning finds us only licking the bowls of whatever bits are left from the previous night's feast. Because he has found, I'm sure, the secret of life: fat, in large quantities, stirred slowly with love.
When he was younger, my father-in-law fought the Nazis and the communists and survived a famine so severe that villagers took to eating the ancient staves of corn that lined the roofs of their chicken coops. He is not afraid of growing old or of falling on the ice-slicked streets of Toronto, where he spends the winter months. He is only afraid of bad food, which means, so far as I can tell, any food he hasn't cooked himself. I've tried making him toast and grilled fish and chicken, all to no avail. The toast has butter, or has been near butter or knows another piece of bread that once associated with butter, which he won't eat. The fish didn't come from the Mediterranean, and the chicken just wasn't good, like his chicken. The man regularly crosses the Canadian border laden with three full suitcases of food—olives, chocolate, taramosalata, cheese and, nowadays, bread, since apparently there is no place in New York to get good bread. He cannot believe that we live so far away from Greek groceries and still survive. When my husband took him to a fine Greek restaurant that he had reviewed well in advance, my father-in-law declared it okay, but not good. He rolled his fish in a napkin and took it home to cook it again. The right way.
Debora talks about cooking and her busy family life