My mother taught me how to cook pasta al dente, fry eggplant to a perfect crisp, and assemble a crockpot meal practically with one hand. My father, on the other hand, didn’t know a wood spoon from a garlic press. It might be easy to chalk this up to his place in a pre-Guy Fieri generation of males, but it was a little more complicated than that.
My dad never apologized for his ineptness in the kitchen, nor did he ever try to defend himself. He just didn’t enjoy cooking and didn’t want to spend any time on it. His few attempts at cooking dinner for me and my brother involved soup from a can, multiple openings and closings of the oven door, and the use of a butter knife as a stirring utensil. I have no recollection of what we actually ate.
But my dad’s ineptness at cooking had a silver lining: it made him extraordinarily appreciative of the effort that goes into a good meal. He knew his strengths and limits in the kitchen, and through that, he taught me a valuable thing: how to make time to savor the perfect sandwich. It wasn’t until I grew up and learned to cook that I truly appreciated what this meant and how it could be applied to other aspects of life.
My dad’s favorite lunch usually involved a generic white hamburger bun, a slice or two of deli meat and American cheese, sweet mustard, a ripe tomato (if he could find one), and a heart surgeon’s level of concentration. During the months of December and January, the meat came from Hickory Farms Original Beef Stick. The Ohio-based company doesn’t make beef stick anymore (its discontinuation is lamented widely and angrily across online food forums), but it used to be a ubiquitous presence in temporary kiosks that popped up in shopping malls during the holidays.
My dad lived for the stuff. He loved the savory taste and how it complemented the melted cheese and sweet mustard on the sandwich, and he loved the burgundy-aproned clerks who offered him generous samples of pasteurized cheese logs as he nosed around their booths.
His other sandwich ingredients were run-of-the-mill supermarket items, but the roll had to be fresh, the tomatoes seasonal, and the deli meat sliced paper-thin.
On any given Saturday or Sunday, my dad would start thinking about what to have for lunch not long after breakfast. He’d set out his ingredients about 30 minutes ahead of time to rid them of refrigerator cold. Then right around noon, he’d get to work slicing the meat and cheese just so, preheating the oven, and building his sandwich. He was always happy to make another for anyone in the family who requested it, but we had to be ready to eat it when it came out of the oven, lightly toasted with the cheese just starting to melt over the side. Otherwise, it got cold, and the taste was ruined. Even if that didn’t faze us, it bothered him to watch us eat such an unfit creation.
He usually washed down the sandwich with a small glass of cold root beer or Coke. Sometimes he tuned the small kitchen TV to the Phillies game, but usually all that could be heard was loud munching as he focused on the task at hand. When he finished, he’d clean up and resume his weekend routine, whether it was shining shoes on the basement steps, washing the station wagon or ferrying a kid to the mall or soccer field.
The sandwich probably wasn’t as savory or special as I make it out to be. It was the sum of the parts and the infectious enthusiasm of the chef that made it delicious. It still leaves me, decades later, with a nostalgia rush that mixes joy with a pang of regret for something that my dad’s nightly dialysis routine (and the low-sodium diet that goes with it) won’t permit any more.
It’s easy to give parents who don’t cook a hard time. But not everyone gets satisfaction from kneading dough or preparing a lump-free roux. My dad’s joy came from the taste of that sandwich and in savoring it with an extra care and enthusiasm that our overscheduled days don’t always allow for.
I don’t make the sandwich anymore, but I try to apply his same standards and focus to other simple tasks in and out of the kitchen, whether it’s arranging a weeknight oil-and-vinegar salad on a plate, tucking blankets and pillows just so around my sleeping sons, or writing a personal note on a friend’s birthday card. Skipping a step or leaving out an ingredient won’t necessarily ruin the experience, but making the extra effort may just push it over the edge enough to some day qualify as a beautiful bittersweet memory.
Laura Randall is a freelance writer and editor in Los Angeles. She is the author of several travel books, including 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Los Angeles. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Christian Science Monitor.