My parents had initially planned to arrive in Basel in mid-February, just after the birth of their 10th grandchild, but my father’s recovery from a pacemaker operation delayed their visit. While a commonplace procedure, my dad’s age, 77, and medical history, a stent procedure in 1999 and a heart attack in 2016, had me seriously concerned that he might never meet my first child.
During the weeks before and after my father’s most recent surgery, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before answering Skype calls and opening emails. The surgery went well, but as a precaution, his doctors prescribed three months in a wearable defibrillator vest, with which, sadly, he wasn’t allowed to fly. He was also prescribed a new diet focused on more vegetables and less red meat and refined carbohydrates. As my parents’ new arrival date, in late May, drew closer, my wife and I started preparing. On top of organizing weekend outings and babysitting schedules, we decided to use their visit as an opportunity to support my dad’s improved diet so as to ensure many more visits with his grandson.
While growing up in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Dorchester, MA, with his three brothers, sister, and parents, my dad ate the same seven meals on a weekly basis. Sunday—pot roast or ham; Monday—left-over pot roast or ham; Tuesday—SPAM; Wednesday—spaghetti and tomato sauce, with meatballs made from leftover hash, if he was lucky; Thursday was, in his words, “different things, none major appetizing”; Friday—tuna casserole with peas and maybe chopped eggs and toast; Saturday—franks and beans. Meals, except on Wednesday and Saturday, were often accompanied by potatoes, carrots, green beans, peas, squash, cauliflower, spinach, or turnips. My dad stuck to the potatoes.
I was taken aback by the amount of meat my dad’s family ate but was reminded by my Uncle that this was a time “when the dietary proselytizing that rides high today would have been laughable. A rich diet of meat and vegetables and dessert and a cigarette or two to finish things off was de rigueur, and medically blessed in doctors’ offices and on billboards.”
Dessert, which was once or twice a week, consisted of a giant-sized bowl of “something” that was rotated around the table for each of his four siblings and parents to take a bite of before passing it along. On occasion, my grandmother would make brownies that, according to my Uncle Tom, my dad would dissect with a knife in order to remove hidden nuts.
I asked my dad about lunch, thinking that that might have been when his family explored more interesting and diverse foods but was told that it was either peanut butter and jelly or tuna fish sandwiches. Breakfast, the last hope for an exciting dish, was also a letdown—“it was always cereal, hot or cold.”
When my dad moved out in his early twenties, he seemed to find comfort in sticking to meals with limited ingredients. His stories of scrambling twelve eggs for breakfast when he was a bachelor in New York City make my arteries tighten. And, his 48-hour caloric intake on Sundays and Mondays, when he was the Managing Editor of Sports Illustrated, are legendary. Sundays started off with a donut or bagel during his 7 a.m. commute to the office; at 9 a.m. his assistant arrived with bacon and egg sandwiches; 11 a.m. was time for another donut or bagel; at 1 p.m. the Stage Deli arrived with sandwiches and salads, though I am pretty sure my dad didn’t touch the latter. If he fancied something other than a sandwich, he might head to Gallagher’s Steak House for eggs Benedict. The mid-afternoon snack included Girl Scout cookies or Klondike bars. Not the healthiest start to the workday, but it pales in comparison to the second half. A catered buffet opened at 7 p.m. and was followed by an 11 p.m. delivery of pizzas from John the Baker. At midnight, a local deli delivered a “few tubs of mac and cheese and scrambled eggs.” More often than not, the staff worked through the night, but at least they could look forward to the egg sandwiches that arrived at sunrise. Feeling somewhat sick to my stomach and a few pounds heavier from just hearing this menu, I didn’t ask my dad about Monday’s meals.
My wife and I were fairly health-conscious eaters before we met but with her working long hours as a consultant and me busy teaching, we often ordered takeout or cooked simple meals. When we ate in, Vicky’s staples were beans on toast or a cheese and pickle sandwich (she’s British); mine were veggie burgers on an English muffin or rice and beans. Neither of us were too keen on the other’s go-to dinner, so when we moved in together a few months later, Vicky signed us up for Blue Apron, a helpful, though time consuming, way to start eating more diverse meals. Upon entering my apartment vestibule the week after Vicky moved in, I was greeted by an oddly heavy box and the stark reminder that I wasn’t going out for an evening run but was instead going to be preparing our first Blue Apron meal: orecchiette pasta with roasted cauliflower, capers, and garlic breadcrumbs.
Growing up, my mom took a utilitarian route to making our Wednesday night pasta. First, she cooked a pound of meat in a battered red skillet and then stirred in two jars of cold Classico pasta sauce. While the sauce heated up, she broke a box of spaghetti in half and boiled it. I wouldn’t learn about giving pasta room to breathe, making the water taste like the ocean, or leaving spaghetti whole until I was well into my thirties. A few spoonfuls of shredded parmesan cheese topped things off. Blue Apron does their pasta a bit differently. The description of their Orecchiette pasta, which called for heirloom cauliflower and a seasoning of aromatics, should have been enough of a warning about the meal’s complexity, but I forged on knowing that I would be making my new roommate happy.
Everything was going smoothly, until I was asked to “remove the yellow rind of the lemon, avoiding the pith; [and] mince the rind to get 2 teaspoons of zest.” I had no idea what rind, pith, or zest were, so I searched the internet and soon learned about a lemon’s anatomy. I couldn’t find a peeler, so I grabbed a small knife. Twenty minutes later, I had massacred the lemon, failed miserably in “avoiding the pith,” and had at most ½ a teaspoon of questionable zest. I thought the worst might be behind me, but when I was asked to cut the cauliflower into small “florets,” I shook my head in disgust. My mom’s no-frills spaghetti seemed a mighty fine back up at this point. Vicky and I enjoyed a nice dinner, albeit an hour late, and continued on and off with Blue Apron over the next two years. I never beat the suggested cooking time.
With no Blue Apron in Switzerland, the cost of eating out unsustainable, and Vicky’s meals becoming a bit repetitive, she searched around for new recipes. Initially, new meals came from Le Creuset’s The Cast Iron Way to Cook or scavenged from Blue Apron’s website, but after a rainy weekend leafing through David and Stephen Flynn’s The Happy Pear–Recipes and Stories from the Last Ten Years cookbook, Vicky’s cooking blossomed. Her enthusiasm landed a Happy Pear moussaka and white lasagna on my plate the following week. Soon thereafter, David and Stephen became regulars in our lives—their cookbook, with the frustratingly photogenic and impressively fit brothers on the cover, took up residence on Vicky’s nightstand.
With my dad on the ropes, physically, Vicky figured he would be an easy target for her healthy meals. Having lived with him for 18 years, I knew otherwise. Immediately after my dad’s operation, Vicky sent my mom a link to David and Stephen’s The Happy Pear Healthy Heart cooking course. The course provides printable recipe books, tailored meal plans, and shopping lists for a plant-based eating program designed to reverse heart disease, obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and other, in the words of American physician Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, “common chronic killing diseases.” Vicky’s emails went unanswered, but with decades of ingrained eating patterns and lifestyle choices, we didn’t take offence; instead, we focused our attention on my parents’ visit to Switzerland.
A month prior to my parent’s arrival, Vicky sent them an Excel spreadsheet with every meal she would cook during their month-long visit. The next day, my mom emailed and asked if the spreadsheet was a joke. I, too, once thought Excel and PowerPoint were strange ways to share information with family members, but after five years of marriage, I have grown accustomed to seeing everything from laundry directions to vacation plans presented in this manner.
Immediately after my parent’s arrival in Basel, I took my mom to the grocery store to stock her Airbnb with essentials. As I imagined, she was utterly confused by the store’s layout and totally thrown off by the German. So, I took the opportunity to stealthily stock the cart with almond milk, Alpen muesli, dried fruits, and Wasa crackers before rushing to the checkout. When we returned to my parents’ apartment, my dad conspiratorially asked what mandel nuss, ohne zucker, and gemuse meant. I told him that there wasn’t a direct translation into English and rushed into the kitchen. The next evening, when I asked how that morning’s breakfast had gone, my dad informed me that the cereal tasted like cardboard. When I suggested that he add more milk, he replied, “I did—that made it worse.”
As Vicky’s interest in cooking grew, she quickly realized that one knife, a Teflon coated frying pan, and an 8-ounce saucepan wouldn’t suffice. So, after our engagement, she compiled a wedding registry that Martha Stewart would have coveted. During the months prior to our wedding, the bedroom of our Brooklyn apartment was filled with so many pots and pans that it could have passed for a kitchen stockroom. Much to my chagrin, Vicky wouldn’t use any of the items before our wedding and delicately placed each one, in its box, around our bed.
Sadly, Vicky and I barely used our new electrical items like the KitchenAid stand mixer, toaster oven, and Jura coffee machine because we moved to Switzerland six months after our wedding and the different voltage there forced us to sell everything. Within an hour of posting our items on Craigslist, I started receiving emails and phone calls from a number of potential buyers. Most people wanted assurance that the item worked, so I scheduled showings at night and often found myself drinking espresso or making toast with strangers late into the evening. One item I thought would be the most difficult to sell, a chest freezer adorned with dozens of stickers that catalogued various stops over the last 15 years of my life, was claimed almost immediately after it was listed. I figured the buyers were food hoarders like Vicky and me but soon learned that they wanted it to freeze breast milk.
On the first Saturday of my parents’ visit, as my dad sat on the couch looking tired and hungry, I caught sight of our new Magimix Power Blender and asked him if he wanted a smoothie. He yelled back, “Sure. Why not?” I was caught off guard by his enthusiasm and quickly gathered ingredients before he could change his mind. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to taste specific fixings, I took the liberty to add flax seeds, spinach, hemp powder, turmeric, bee pollen, and kale. He sucked down the smoothie in three sips and said it tasted “pretty good.” Sadly, this was the high point in our mission to get my dad excited about eating more healthily.
Unbeknownst to me, at the time, digressions from a supposed healthy month of eating were already taking place. On the walk back to their apartment one evening, my dad had a McFlurry, and prior to that, my mom had started making him tuna fish and mayonnaise sandwiches for lunch. The kicker, however, was when I came home from work one afternoon and asked my parents about their day. I was excited that they had taken Aksel for a walk along the Rhine but less so that they had forgone the salads Vicky had left in the fridge and had eaten at Flannagan’s Irish Pub instead.
When I went to my parents’ apartment to collect their bags the evening prior to their return to the U.S., my mom mentioned that there was some unopened food that I should take back to my place. Upon entering the kitchen, I noticed unopened boxes of Wasa crackers, cartons of almond milk, and bags of dried fruit. I quickly realized that there might have been more than one visit to Flannagan’s.
In reality, I knew my dad’s eating habits wouldn’t change just because he had a few heart operations. His eating patterns were set in stone when he was a child and a few weeks of Vicky’s cooking surely wasn’t going to upend 77 years of favored flavors and textures. When I recently asked my mom about my dad’s diet, she said, somewhat despairingly, “He’s too old. He will never change.”
With that in mind, Vicky and I are trying our best to set Aksel on a more rounded nutritional path. A few months prior to his birth, Vicky purchased a chest freezer and within weeks, filled it with dozens of pureed servings from Ella’s Kitchen The First Foods Book—130 Yummy Recipes from Weaning to the Big Table. As a chocoholic, I was skeptical of Ella’s “veg first approach” that helps to “get your baby used to savory rather than sweet tastes as early as possible,” but after watching Aksel work his way through spoonfuls of mashed avocados, courgettes, Brussel sprouts, and potatoes, I was sold.
After Aksel turned one, he moved from purees to toddler portions of the meals Vicky and I eat, most of which come from the Flynn brothers’ cookbooks. We share dinners like lentil and eggplant moussaka; coconut chana masala with spinach and Greek yogurt; butternut squash and apple soup blended with cannellini beans, curry powder, and crème fraiche; and veggie risotto with mushrooms, carrots, peas, zucchini, and bell peppers. When Aksel eats dinner, Vicky often sends pictures of his meals to my family’s WhatsApp chatgroup. My dad typically replies with a “give him a cheeseburger” or some other sardonic remark.
The following summer, when Aksel was one and a half, he spent three weeks living with my parents in New York while I completed my graduate studies in Vermont and Vicky worked in Basel. We were both happy that Aksel would have extended time with his grandparents and cousins but were incredibly nervous about what he would eat. To prepare my parents for their summer duties, Vicky wrote a four-page document titled “Buster Meal Ideas.” Headings included “FIRST BREAKFAST (~6.30 a.m. – or as soon as he wakes up)” and subheadings contained phrases like “Veggie Sides 1-3 Per Meal” with “grilled zucchini strips” and “sliced mushrooms, raw” as preferred options. Within hours of our arrival in New York, Vicky busied herself in the kitchen cooking and freezing dozens of Aksel’s favorite soups and sauces while quizzing my mom on “Buster Meal Ideas.” A few days later, Vicky and I departed feeling confident that Aksel would continue to eat like he does at home.
I FaceTimed during Aksel’s meals, and he seemed to have settled into a new routine of eating his first breakfast with his grandfather, his second breakfast with his grandmother, and lunch and dinner with a rotating cast of cousins, aunts, and his uncle. I couldn’t see what was on his plate, but he looked happy and healthy. With all of our focus on what Aksel was putting into his mouth, Vicky and I seemed to have missed one crucial element concerning healthy eating—with whom he was sharing his meals. My uncle Tom reflected on the importance of shared meals when he wrote to me that “Some 70 years later some of us, like our oldest brother, take great comfort in looking back at the days when seven of us sat together at 6 p.m. night after night for most of the 1950s and ate meals that our overworked but deeply involved parents put on our plates.”
I saw this equally important side of healthy eating when I returned home two weeks later for an Independence Day party. While we waited for the fireworks to begin, nineteen members of my family, some of whom I hadn’t seen in over a year, sat on gingham blankets and devoured cheeseburgers, pork sliders, and baked cornbread followed by ice cream, cookies, and pie. I am not sure anyone touched a salad and the only vegetable we ate was heavily buttered corn on the cob. At one point, I looked up and saw Aksel sitting among his cousins happily eating ice cream while my dad was furtively ripping apart a cookie looking for those pesky nuts. It wasn’t the healthiest of meals, but nearly two years later we’re all still here and already talking about hopefully reuniting for this coming summer’s celebration.