My father was a truck driver by profession and after he retired he did several admirable things that I never even knew he was interested in doing. He auditioned for and got parts in several plays and volunteered to cook and serve (pictured) for the homeless.
My fathers side of the family immigrated from El Salvador and he was the first generation to be born in America. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where he lived for nearly his entire life. He told me stories about his mother and grandmother in their kitchen when he was growing up but it wasn’t generally about the food they were making so although I have a great appreciation for the Hispanic heritage on my fathers side of the family I know very little of its food culture. I didn’t have a close relationship with my grandmother on my father’s side so I know little of what her cooking was like, and when my father cooked he mostly cooked Chinese food and pies.
I know that my father wasn’t always interest in cooking and that he learned a great deal from my mother as well as taking a cooking class when he was in his thirties. I know he approached some dishes like a personal quest, pie crust being one of them. I remember his frustration and rage over failed pastry but I also remember him singing and acting silly when it was working the way he wanted it to. I remember every cooking tip he ever gave me and as I get older I have a better understanding of his approach to cooking, the rage he felt at his failed pies and though I never really struggle with pastry I definitely have my own food quests.
I know a lot of families have recipes they think of as family recipes, some may just be a way a family makes a certain everyday food or the recipe may contain expensive ingredients and/or be very time consuming so it’s only ever made for special occasions. In my family Oyster Sauce Beef was sort of my fathers signature dish and one of the most requested birthday dinners when I was growing up.
Many years before my father passed away he made family cookbooks for Christmas. He laboriously typed them all himself on an old word processor. The cookbook itself is fairly unremarkable looking from the outside, it is just a slim black plastic binder with no markings or title. On the inside the pages are printed on plain white paper and slipped into inexpensive clear plastic sleeves. Tucked into the pocket of the binder when you first open it is a nice story about family tradition and making tamales for Christmas.
When I left California to move overseas I could only really take two suitcases worth of stuff and I made sure I packed my homemade family cookbook into one of them. When I moved back to the USA 12 years later, that very same cookbook came with me in the very same suitcase and despite its plain unremarkable appearance, its been visible in every place I’ve lived since my father gave it to me.