For Siblings, a Culinary Arms Race


Photo by adactio/FlickrCC

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?

For myself, I decided to lay down my arms during a shared summer vacation some years ago. My husband, our two daughters, and I had gathered at our island cottage in the Canadian Maritimes, along with my parents, my brother, and his wife and son.

The first day, I made a fish chowder: local clams and hake, new potatoes, baby onions, and tarragon from the farmers' market. It was superior soup, and my father slurped it down with particular enthusiasm. I basked in the glow of general approval.

The next day, my brother made a pilgrimage to a local pig farm and bought a rack of humanely raised ribs. While we lounged on the beach, he spent all afternoon smoking and slow cooking. They were stratospherically delicious: meaty, pungent, and tender. My father declared them the best he'd ever eaten. My chowder seemed wan in comparison.

Day three: my sister-in-law drove down to the docks for just-caught fish and made scallion and ginger-laced sashimi; scallop and mushroom fritters; shrimp and vegetable tempura. I contributed a dish of miso-glazed mackerel. The meal was masterful, the fish so fresh it tasted of pure seawater, the cloud-like fritters studded with sweet chunks of scallop. My father was effusive in his praise. Yet he misdirected his appreciation of the mackerel. I burn with shame as I write this, but in my mid-forties, mother of two, I actually murmured plaintively, "But I made the mackerel!"

By the next morning, I had come to my senses. Clearly, if we were to enjoy this vacation, some unilateral de-escalation was in order. I resolved to relax about all matters culinary. I would cook, I would eat, I would enjoy, but I would not jostle for recognition. Dinner would be dinner—not love, not validation, not a measure of my filial worth.

That evening, I went for a long bike ride rather than heading for the kitchen, and we made do with a simple pasta. The next day, I took a late swim rather than setting the swordfish to marinate. I applauded my family members' dinner-hour triumphs with a conscious suppression of competition.

And it worked. Kind of. Just remember that I made the mackerel.