For Siblings, a Culinary Arms Race

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There may be men out there for whom the old saying about "the way to a man's heart" is a retro banality, as dated as June Cleaver's aprons and pearls. I just don't happen to know any. My own husband has always been smitten with my talents as a cook; it makes him happy to eat well, it makes him happy that someone else is doing the cooking, and as a bonus, he's happy to do the dishes. My brother, himself no slouch in the kitchen, has been married twice: once to a woman who couldn't make toast; once to a woman who can turn out ethereal piles of homemade gyoza without breaking a sweat. Guess which marriage has lasted?

For my father, however, this way to the heart stuff is putting it mildly. My father has a super-highway leading directly from palate to paternal approval. Yes, he loves us. And yes, it ABSOLUTELY matters that we feed him well. As a result, long into our adult years, my siblings and I find ourselves jockeying for his affections in the kitchen.

My father declared them the best he'd ever eaten. My chowder seemed wan in comparison.

It would be almost impossible to exaggerate the central role that food plays in my father's psyche. After 80 years on this planet, he still feels there is not a meal to waste. When he couldn't find decent bagels in Colorado, he had them Fed-Exed from Zabar's. A man who still types with one finger, he learned to navigate the Internet so he could browse the menus of Parisian bistros and troll Chowhound message boards. He has beaten off his hungry grandchildren's forks so he can steal the last slice of plum crostata. And not only does he focus a laser-like attention on every bite that goes into his own mouth—he has plenty to say about what's going into yours as well.

I still remember a hapless friend of mine, 13 years old at the time, who committed the grave error of ordering turkey tetrazzini in his presence. You'd have thought she'd asked the waiter for a shot glass of strychnine. "No!" he barked at her with a ferocity that silenced the room. "I ... I ... guess I'll have the egg salad?" she finally stammered, peering at him for permission. I'm sure the poor kid—now a grown woman—can't eat leftover poultry in cream sauce to this day.

You can see why dinner figures prominently in our family dynamics. Food gradually becomes a lever to adjust sibling status. And then, before you know it, you're locked in a kind of crazy, culinary arms race.

I married an Italian and lived for years in Italy; I can translate menus in country Tuscan trattorias and make my own pappardelle. Ten points. My brother has become a skilled barbecue pit master, able to smoke a brisket and spit-roast a suckling pig; he married a lovely Japanese woman who has a winning way with soba noodles. Eleven points. My half-sister stepped into the race late and immediately went nuclear: she married a professional chef and opened three fabulous New York restaurants where my father can always get a table. Who can compete?

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Lesley Freeman Riva writes frequently on food, family, and travel. More

Lesley Freeman Riva writes frequently on food, family, and travel. Her work has appeared in local, national and international outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Cookie, Parenting, Harper's Magazine, Sherman's Travel, the Travel Channel, and Edible Rhody. She and her family live and eat in Rhode Island and Italy.

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