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Commentary: In the Kitchen with my Father

My dad wasn’t home a lot when I was growing up… he had a job where he traveled six or seven months out of the year. And I remember watching him pack for these trips. Carefully folding his suits and ties before putting them in a black suitcase. Then he’d kiss my mom goodbye, and my brothers and sisters and I — his goatee scratching our cheeks.

He worked a lot when he was home, too. At dinner, he sat at the head of the table and asked us how our day was. I asked him about work, because that’s all I really knew about him.

And while I didn’t know much about my dad, I did know one thing. He loves mostacolli. Mostacolli is a pasta sauce that cooks all day. Sort of like a sweeter, richer bolognese. And it’s my family’s ‘secret recipe,’ one generation teaching the next, never writing it down. I also love it.

So I ate a lot of mostacolli growing up. My dad made it every Sunday he was home. I remember watching him cook the sauce when I was six or seven. Me, sitting in the kitchen eating a grilled cheese. Him, wearing a stained Stanford football t-shirt, chopping onions. He poured tomato sauce into an old, black, ratty pot. I wondered how he had managed to memorize such a complex recipe.

Years passed. And my dad still traveled a lot. The distance between us remained, too. But as I grew older — I gained more courage. Enough to ask my dad to share something with me. To teach me to cook mostacolli.

The next Sunday we went to our local grocery store after church. Usually I would have made a bee-line straight for the oreo ice cream sandwiches I loved. But this time, I watched as my dad picked out cans of whole tomatoes. As the butcher wrapped up the tri-tip. As he picked out a stalk of celery, bulbs of garlic, and one green bell pepper. And the secret ingredients — the spices.

Back home, he walked me through each step. Sauteeing the vegetables before the meat, then throwing it in that old, black pot with the tomatoes. That uncertainty — that distance between us — started to fade. He grabbed a wooden spoon and stirred it all together, then placed the lid on the pot.

These days, I’ve been away from home a lot, too. My dad is 67 now, and he still travels a lot for work. But now I understand why he has to spend so much time away. And that he feels that distance, too.

That distance faded away again when I went home this past Christmas. My mom picked me up from the airport. It was a Sunday. On the way home we stopped at a grocery store. I walked the aisles, picking out cans of tomatoes. The tri-tip. The stalk of celery and one green bell pepper.

My dad flew in a few hours later. The smell of mostacolli greeted him as he walked in the front door. He put his bags down and kissed my mom hello. Then he walked into the kitchen. That’s where I was. Stirring the mostacolli in that old, black, ratty pot. Just like he taught me.

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