Fortunately, my mother is a talented, energetic and ambitious cook. She is much better than I am about dating and commenting on receipts in her cookbooks, and it never ceases to astonish me when I look up an elaborate receipt in her Julia Child or the NYT cookbook, and see a comment next to Veal Marengo, along the lines of “Sep 9, 76 – delicious,” and reflect that she was doing this kind of cooking while teaching full time and raising two sons. She cooked this way because she loved my father, and my father loved meals. Not food, per se, but meals. Over the course of my life, I can think of only a handful of dinners we shared that were not sit-down affairs, without television.
Indeed, if my father’s picture were used to illustrate a word in the dictionary, it would be “regale.” This was his primary mode of discourse at the table. Someone might mention Austin, Texas at the other end of the table, and my father would be off, describing a summer he spent there when his father was lecturing at the University of Texas. He was fourteen, just barely too young to drive, and thus stranded in a rented house on the outskirts of Austin. He was compelled to entertain himself, which he did by reading through the house’s library, which consisted mainly of the works of Virginia Woolf and Maria Edgeworth, if memory serves. At times, this mode would render conversation a bit unilateral, and we would refer to his excesses as “Oral Term Papers,” but they were almost always worth the price of admission. A particular pleasure of mine was to bring someone as a guest to our table, because it served as a pretext for another rendition of a favorite, like the story of Nels and Nels.
It can be difficult for a son to discern the particular impact of a parent on him, but I am persuaded that my father’s approach to dinner table conversation has informed not only my persona, but even the fundamental social interaction of my friends. When we gather, it is more a question of catching up on olds than of catching up on news. We regale each other with stories we all know – I am thinking in particular of one DK’s attempts to reach his paramour by bicycle and kayak very late one Maine evening, another DK’s visit to Times Square, an ill-considered effort to bring eggs to a football game. The joy of these stories lies not in their novelty, but in their familiarity.