It's a running joke in our household, the way that Papou (Greek for grandfather) insists on cooking for us all; the way in which he imposes his affection through precisely measured dribbles of honey and cinnamon. Yet I've also started to notice that I do it too. Not with olives or fish, perhaps, and not with the same time and attention that he brings to the task, but with something that approaches the same level of obsession. When my three kids were younger and I was struggling to get tenure at Harvard, I fell every evening into a familiar she-bat-out-of-hell routine: dashing through the grocery store, running in the door and throwing chicken, potatoes and broccoli around the stove top and into dinner. None of this was really necessary. My husband would have been happy to plunk some pork chops on the grill. My children would have been ecstatic with nonstop macaroni and cheese. It was I who needed to cook; I who needed the ancient identity that seemed to cling to sticks of melting butter and wafting smells of meat. So what, I told myself, if my boys' pants dangled occasionally around their ankles and my daughter's socks refused to match? Who cares if I had missed the last PTA meeting—and the 17 before that? I had a pot roast on the stove, goddammit. I was good.
As my children grew from babies to teenagers, food became an integral, intricate part of our lives. Other families had scrapbooks and cousins, camping trips or communal prayer. We had food. Food that eventually became its own kind of ritual, elaborate and predictable as catechism. On Thanksgiving: turkey, stuffing, two kinds of potatoes, carrots, green beans and that horrible jelled cranberry sauce my middle son refused to live without. On Christmas, it was salmon, rib roast and cookies—four kinds, extra nuts, no exceptions. Sometimes, when calendar collisions meant that Passover, Easter and Greek Orthodox Easter all fell at once, we mixed and matched with culinary obsession: matzo ball soup, lamb, ham, eggs and wiggly Jell-O bunnies. None of this was exactly gourmet fare. But I kept cooking and we kept eating, testifying to the only gospel that our family's diverse ancestry seemed to share: Food equals love. Amo cookat. Amat eatat. Or something like that. If I love you, I will cook. And if you love me, you will eat.
My father-in-law is walking a bit slower these days. The cold bothers him and he naps more frequently than I remember. But when we picked him up at the airport last week, the suitcase was still there—one shirt, one pair of socks, two pounds of raisins, a bag of almonds and some cheese. He is cooking. We are good.