So here it is. This is my first year celebrating Father’s Day as top dog. After losing my dad last October, I became the eldest male in my immediate family, a position I neither applied for nor looked forward to but am doing my best to handle with grace. You can quote me when I say, “It is all bitter and no sweet.”
Let’s not cry in our beer, here. He’d hate to ruin a good Busch (or Bushmills) with a weeping session. Instead, I have found these weeks leading up to this milestone a time to look back on our family history of the fathers and how they cooked.
From toddler size, I remember the men in the family cooking. My grandfather Arnold Dean “Mac” MacDonald took the task seriously. Usually he was grilling. Sunday afternoons post-church we’d meet for lunch or dinner with him and my grandmother Mammaw Mac. I can still smell the chicken coming off that grill coated in barbecue sauce. Hot dogs were always done until they charred on one side, a practice I still prefer today. Hobo bags were my favorite. If you’re unfamiliar, that is a pouch of foil filled with vegetables. It was while making my way through one of these that I remember the moment I decided I loved onions.
One story passed about my family was when a very young me blankly stared at the naked mashed potatoes and began to cry. Why would he do such a thing? Mashed potatoes without gravy? Full disclosure: He was a Yankee transplanted from Minnesota. My parents tried to hush my tantrum but Pappaw Mac was already saving face. “Gravy? Oh, I’ll get you some gravy.” The man returned with a ladle of barbecue sauce for my creamy spuds and the waterworks ceased. My lunchtime hero saved the day.
This love of cooking certainly filtered down to my old man, Darryl Dean “Mac” MacDonald. My mother was and is an excellent cook, but in my formative years my father would occasionally show his talents with crabmeat dip, snacks and such. Who could forget late-night hash for my drunken high school friends seeking refuge and sobriety, unable to afford or navigate the trip across town to Waffle House.
As I grew up, his cooking became finely honed and there were several dishes bearing his signature. His barbecue shrimp were killer. Before vacationing every summer in Gulf Shores with his wife, Andree, and her very hospitable Louisiana family, he would go to the docks and ask everyone to “show me your big ones.” Whoever won out would sell him pound after pound of extra-large shrimp to make the next week of condo living more tolerable.
His version of New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp was nothing like the famous Mr. B’s. Mr. B’s uses straight butter and Worcestershire sauce in a skillet. Big D’s were actually done in the oven, shell on, with olive oil and Worcestershire. We’d line up with bits of crusty bread and peel these monsters until our fingers were raw.
The next night he would use the rest of his catch for stuffed shrimp. Individually wrapped in foil, covered with crabmeat stuffing, these single servings were a bigger hit than the barbecue. You were lucky if you got more than one. He’d always give preferential treatment to the band and we’d make out with three or four.
Closely akin to the stuffing, he would line muffin tins with the paper cups and make crabmeat muffins. Amazing. Always the dirty old man, I heard he once told a woman, “Now be careful. You’re gonna get to eating that and if you aren’t careful you’re gonna eat the paper. And if you eat the paper you’re gonna have your fingers in your mouth. And you don’t want your fingers in your mouth because there’s no telling where they’ve been.”
That is the kind of artist he was. He was a bit of a showoff, and he could damned sure do it.
There is the platitude involving apples and trees, stale as it may be, but I certainly found myself following his footsteps toward the kitchen. We have a similar cooking style but I was never trying to be just like him. Quite the contrary. We cooked side by side enough that we were always trying to outdo each other, yet had a healthy respect for what the other was doing.
The last time I spent the night with him I cooked three meals. I could tell he wanted to get up and get his hands dirty next to mine, but he couldn’t. He didn’t have it in him anymore. Instead of the son at the father’s feet begging to help, the old man was now at the feet of his son.
So here we are. It’s another first in a long list of things I’ll have to face this year. You can imagine I have a different perspective being thrust into the No. 1 slot, but perhaps it has afforded me a certain responsibility. It isn’t something I will take lightly.
Every chance I get I try to carry on the tradition with my two boys and my brother, Big Al. Whether it’s frying turkeys, smoking chickens, baking honey buns or whipping up frittatas, the men in this family cook. It’s in our blood.
This Father’s Day, before you invest in a tie or a set of tools, take a step back and ask yourself if your dad is like the ones in my family. Sure, you feel obligated to buy him a gift. But you can’t buy time. Go cook for your dad. I wish I could.