If I had known that that night would be my last with Dad, would I have acted differently? Would I have attempted to say the words that had not been said, or show him any special deference? But, I didn’t know that this was the last night, and in the natural course of things, the day only surprises me in its memory by how ordinary it felt. I asked him if he would make his chili, just as if it were any other Sunday. I noticed that he looked more tired and more white than usual, which was not surprising, considering he had been recovering from the flu. But, flu or not, he agreed.
We had enough tomatoes, enough kidney beans, enough hamburger. We had the cumin, the oregano, the chili peppers, all obediently waiting in the pantry as if they had known they would be called for. I had been thirsting for the chili for at least a week, and in my anticipation I laid out each ingredient sequentially, so that Dad would be able to find everything as he needed it. I laid the large chili pot on the cool stove, and the skillet nearby. I knew that as soon as my dad arrived in the kitchen, all of this order would be disrupted and become a sloppy but alluring clash of aromas that would call each of us down at intervals to check the simmering pot; knowing this, however, did not take away the charm of imposing order early on.
Dad found me in the kitchen, already drawing the hot water in the sink for the dishes. He rolled up his shirt sleeves to the elbows, and I saw his hands, tan from the summers, worn down and leathery from hard work, yet polished in a way that reminded me of an old saddle which acquires a layer of shine from being rubbed over so many times. These were the hands of a surgeon – skilled, artistic. It always seemed so right to me that a surgeon, accustomed to healing and working alongside the human organs, should also naturally show talent in the many-faceted chemistry of cooking, though how I made the connection I now fail to recognize.
We cut the onions into thin, rectangular strips, mincing them, our work precipitated by, “Watch out, Babes,” from Dad, the sharp knives glinting a bit too closely to my smaller fingers. Soon I allowed him to manage the rest of the onions, my own eyes watering and blurring my vision. He then turned to the stove and pulled out the white package from the microwave, letting the hamburger fall in a half-frozen slab onto the skillet. I watched the pink flesh simmer, transforming itself to brown, as I stirred and flipped and snatched tiny tidbits of brown hamburger to taste, well-seasoned and spicy.
Dad did the tasting and “spicing,” and I did the pouring, opening the cans of kidney beans and allowing everything into the pot, followed by the tomato sauce, the tomatoes and then the now browned mixture of meat and onions. The pot was large and capable, and the mixture inside reminded me of volcanic lava, gushing and popping in choleric activity.
My dad, all patience, found a magazine and sat at the kitchen table, a half-drunk coffee cup for company. And I, too, took a book and read, and we sat, not talking to each other but enjoying being in the same room and doing the same thing. In the next hours we stirred, added spices, and watched the pot. When Dad cooked, the tomato sauce had a habit of escaping from the pot and dripping on the stove, so that by the end we had not only the chili but also a piece of contemporary artwork- a jumble of dried red splashes applied liberally and indiscriminately. The used dishes and cans sat haphazardly inside and around each other, dripping a mixture of sauces and juices into greasy pools on the counter. The knives, shiny with use, sat on table, which itself looked crummy, but nonetheless the incense of the chili wafted all over the house and gave it a loved feeling.
Everyone gathered around to taste the chili, and we all savored it, hot and tomatoey and full of spice – enough to clear your sinuses, Mom always said. There was a certain magic about Dad’s chili and the nights when we ate it were different from the other nights and all the other suppers. It might have been the hint of lemon and vinegar in the sauce, or maybe the beer, added toward the end, which sizzled at the top and added a slightly pink tone to the mixture. This night was different, though. Dad didn’t eat the chili. Here I had wanted him to make it because I knew it was something we both liked, and yet, he wouldn’t eat it. I felt sad somehow, knowing how much work he had put into that pot, and how much I myself was enjoying it- and yet he couldn’t enjoy it with us. And with that observation, a great part of the joy of making chili with my dad evaporated. I worried about him. How sick was he?
It was the next day that he died. We all came back from the hospital after he was anointed and the house had lost something. It didn’t feel right and it had lost the essence of being a home, though everything looked and seemed the same. We could have pretended that Dad was at the hospital on call, or making rounds, and I think we did, for that first night. The next morning I opened the fridge and saw the leftover chili, covered in Saran wrap and staring at me. It seemed wrong that the chili was still there when Dad had died, as though with his death the chili ought to have disappeared as being a part of him. The chili’s leftover existence seemed incoherent, and yet- in that week we left the chili there in the fridge, and no one dared to eat it – and no one dared to throw it away.
After that we couldn’t find the chili recipe. We tried sometimes to make it the way Dad did – Mom knew the basic ingredients, and so we would compile them in the way we knew best. I remembered the onions and the hamburger, and the kidney beans and the tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. I remembered the hours of time we waited – I remembered the beer at the end. But it was the spices that Dad added that had given the chili the magic it had had – or maybe it was the fact of Dad’s making it, so quietly and so patiently, and so kindly. Whatever it was, it was gone.
I found myself missing Dad’s cooking – even the exasperating mess of cans and dirty dishes and the sploshed oven range and counters. I missed the smells of spices and hot food, and the feeling that something good would be on the table to eat in “just a bit.” I missed that knowledge of being loved- the knowledge of love that can only be communicated in good cooking. I longed for the recipes and for the companionship that cooking with my dad gave me. Most of all, I found myself looking around for the half-drunk coffee cup, the one he always absent-mindedly left somewhere before giving up and reaching for another cup to leave half-drunk somewhere else. The fast-paced rhythm of life kept us going, moving, off to school and to work and even to play. But that feeling of loss lingered in the air. The cooking smells that had given our house a loved feeling were gone.
One day, long after my dad’s death, we were cleaning the cupboards and came upon a multitude of old cookbooks. I opened Dad’s old mint-green faded copy of The Joy of Cooking – and out fell the chili recipe! It was a discovery that brought tears to my eyes – that paper we had given up for lost long ago. There was a friendly spattering of dried red tomato sauce all over it, like a greeting. And there was my Dad’s messy scrawl of writing – a recipe which had been perfected and altered several times throughout his life. I had not seen the recipe in years, and probably he had stopped needing it by the time I was helping him make the chili. But there it all was, and I took it in as a treasure:
Sautee 1 large onion
Brown 2 pounds of hamburger in a pan: now add both hamburger and onions to a large pot. Then mix in all of these things:
38 ounces of kidney beans
38 ounces of tomato sauce
38 ounces of whole peeled tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic
2 teaspoons cumin
2-4 teaspoons of oregano
6 tablespoons of chili powder
(Watch Out!!) Anywhere from 2 to 12 dried chili peppers or 3 tablespoons of crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon of anise seed
1/2 teaspoon of fennel seed
4 teaspoons of salt
1 can of beer
Optional: 2 teaspoons of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of vinegar
Add water if it gets too hot.
I put the worn paper close to my face to see if any trace of the chili had lingered between the pages of this favorite book. And that night, we followed the recipe and added every spice religiously to the letter. The magic aroma entered the house again like a memory, comfortable in its environment, and it felt the same as it had, and still not the same. Everyone came by to lift the pot and take in the smell of the chili, and our family was connected again in a way that it had not been connected in years. We laughed and smiled and told stories about the way Dad was, and wished he could be there. And we thought about what he would add to the chili to make it his own.
In the years since then, I have appropriated the chili recipe. Now, I cook it when I miss my dad, and somehow, in the process of cutting and mixing and sautéing – in the course of adding a pinch of cumin, or oregano, a spot of lemon juice, I am reminded for a moment of my dad, and his patient, leathery-veined hands, that feeling of waiting for something good, that atmosphere of cheer and warmth and cooking. And I love to share this recipe with others – friends that I have met throughout the course of time. It is to me like introducing them to Dad, as though as they taste his chili, they will know somehow who he was. I know it isn’t possible, but having his recipe is a way for him to stay alive in my heart and a way for him to continue to live; and that is part of the magic of this recipe.