One of my most enduring memories is of riding through the Southern Maryland countryside on Saturday afternoons with my mother and father—my father at the wheel, all of us in hot pursuit of the smell of barbecue. My father loved ribs and thought nothing of getting in the car and driving an hour and a half from our house in Greenbelt to Charles County to find them. The names of the places have faded from memory but not the images: the aromatic smoke curling above the ramshackle white houses, the three of us at a picnic table, licking our fingers or wiping them on the slices of white bread that came with an order, the flies buzzing about our heads.
My father loved these kinds of afternoons. Loved the quest. Lighting out for a destination, not knowing what you’d find, hoping for the best. And even if it was lousy, which sometimes it was, coming home with a good story.
Most of the friends I grew up with didn’t venture beyond meat and potatoes, spaghetti, and macaroni and cheese, but that wasn’t my experience. We ate everything. Thai and Spanish and French and German and Japanese and Vietnamese and Indian and Greek. My father loved the stuffed grape leaves at Ikaros in Baltimore, so I wanted to love them, too. He was the one who turned me on to pupusas. He introduced me to bul goki and crepes, to hot-and-sour soup and the pleasures of hot pot.
So long as a restaurant had character, had soul, he loved it. Dives, taverns, pubs, it didn’t matter—good was good. His mother scolded him, repeatedly, for taking a ten-year-old to a bar, but my father never listened. I spent many a Saturday night in the late, lamented Henkel’s—hard by the railroad tracks in Fort Meade and probably once a bordello—chowing down on a Chenkelburger as my father and mother worked their way through the foot-high ham sandwiches and knocked back bottles of beer.
The other dive he loved was the Irish Pub in Baltimore. In the summers of 1977 and ’78, I could have gone to camp, but I chose to stay home. Instead of archery and swimming, I spent a few days every week in my father’s light-filled studio, drawing quietly by myself in a corner as he worked on his towering canvases. Every other week, we went to the Irish Pub for the magnificent cheeseburgers, thick and oozing juice.
You don’t realize the imprint these things make on you, don’t realize you’re merely picking up a long thread that has been left for you, until you gain some distance on your past.
When I was in graduate school in Virginia in the early ’90s, I discovered a pool hall and bar whose owner devised a special menu every Friday afternoon to feature the cooking of his grandmother. Seven bucks got you a thick slice of grilled meatloaf—you could see slices of garlic and bits of thyme in the meat—skin-on mashed potatoes, gravy, and beans. I went back to campus and told my friends, who all said: That dump?
I called my father, who I knew would understand. He said, “Sounds terrific! When are we gonna go?”
I came to writing about food after having written about seemingly everything else—sports, media, politics, books. When someone would ask me how I’d gotten into food writing, I’d say I had sort of stumbled into it. But the truth was I’d been preparing since I was a little boy.
My father got a kick out of my being a food critic, and I loved taking him out to eat with me. We went everywhere. It was a new chapter in our eating adventures.
He made no distinctions between a refined restaurant and a casual spot, and he paid no mind to reputation or buzz. As an artist, he craved his solitude, which he needed in order to think and create, and he could be irascible if he didn’t have long blocks in the day to work on his paintings and read and refill the well, as Hemingway put it. But after that, he longed for contact. He loved the energy of a good restaurant, the sense of possibility. Strangers coming together, blowing off steam, finding community, if only for a couple of hours. A good restaurant restored you, sent you on your way a new man.
Often, a hostess would show us to a table somewhat out of the way, presuming that a man in his seventies would be looking for a quiet spot. My father preferred to sit at the bar. Somehow, food was always better at the bar. The world looked better at the bar.
When he became sick, I was bewildered. It couldn’t be. Daddy? He had the energy of a 40-year-old. I had thought he was indestructible.