I wrote this in 2004. Appropriately enough, it went out over the AP wire. I’m missing my dad a lot today. We’ll be having spaghetti for dinner tonight for sure.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. June 16, 2004
Father’s Day is upon us again, a day that is all about dads, and so unavoidably also all about their kids.
I, of course, have never been a father, but I have been a daughter all my life, and it is through the eyes of a daughter, especially the daughter of my clever, charming, wordsmith of a dad, that I cannot help but see the world. It’s been a wild ride at times, but I wouldn’t have missed it for all the riches there are.
This will be my first Father’s Day without him. He died just last month, the culmination of a slow and degenerative illness.
As I sat by his bedside at the end, telling him over and over how much his life had meant, we both found ourselves in tears, and inevitably it was when I was talking about food and words, and how thoroughly he had taught me to love them both.
My Dad was a bon vivant, a man who relished excellent food and drink and who loved nothing more than to share both with friends, trading stories and jokes until the stomachs were full and the bottles were empty.
When he sat down to a meal, his huge eyes crinkled with anticipated pleasure, his beaky Lebanese face lit with enthusiasm. “Oh hey, my friends,” he’d say, practically rubbing his hands together, “isn’t this just grand.”
Dad was really our food parent. They say that little girls learn to cook at their mother’s knee, but except for the fact that my Mom makes the best potato salad in the world, bar none, cooking was never really her favorite thing. She fed us well, but the person who really found creative, if sporadic, joy at our stove was my Dad.
There were innovative experiments (like fresh doughnuts one Saturday morning) but, typically, he cooked the foods of his Lebanese parents.
Chicken livers simmering in butter and cinnamon on Sunday mornings, a wicked garlicky hummus-bi-tahini, spicy za’atar sprinkled on Syrian bread, glistening with greenish olive oil, tomatoes and green peppers stuffed with ground meat, their little vegetable hats sitting slightly askew, tangy pink pickled turnips, and grilled chicken with cinnamon, drenched with lemon and garlic sauce.
My dad also made the best french fries I have ever eaten, spoiled only by his inflexible and still baffling dictum that if you wanted more potatoes you had to have a second helping of meat as well. Perhaps that’s the reason I never eat meat today, but eat potatoes with glee. The influence of fathers works in mysterious ways.
When my father cooked, the kitchen almost always ended up smelling like cinnamon. He bought huge containers of it and used it liberally, in foods no one else would have dreamed of putting it in, and in such enormous amounts that you shuddered to taste the final product. Against all logic, it always ended up delicious, and the smell of cinnamon can bring him close to me like nothing else.
Like his spaghetti. When it comes to spaghetti we Barbours have always lived large — consuming massive quantities of pasta heaped on the plate, covered with my dad’s rich meat sauce and topped with freshly grated imported Parmesan. We were not intentional gluttons; we just never knew you could eat it any other way.
My dad’s spaghetti sauce was what made the whole huge portion thing inevitable.
It was a cross between traditional Bolognese sauce, with meat, tomatoes and herbs, and Cincinnati-style chili with its vaguely Middle Eastern overtones of cinnamon.
As a kid, I shied away from its intensity and tried to get my dinner before Dad hit the stove and started doctoring Mom’s sauce, but as I grew up, I came to crave its complexity and depth, and started making it myself, when the freezer he would fill on his Christmas visits ran empty.
A few years ago, I met a woman at a conference with whom I got on really well. We sat in the back of the room and interspersed our talk about politics with a lot more talk about food.
After we returned home I got an e-mail from her. It turns out she’d known my Dad for years but hadn’t connected me with him until after the conference. “I now have a deeper understanding of your love of food,” she wrote me, sharing memories of my Dad’s gusto for good things.
As a writer for The Associated Press for 40 years, Dad approached the written language with that same appetite and zest. He had a passion for the cadence and sense of words, crafting and polishing them lovingly before setting them gently on the page, and then reading them aloud to try them out on the ear.
When I was little we would sit up late at night after the rest of the family had gone to bed, and he would read me poetry in his deep dad voice, leaving me with chills of wonder and sleepiness.
After he died, a friend asked me if the fact that my Dad was a writer had an impact on my own love for writing, and I resorted to capital letters to say it. HUGE, I wrote. Because that was my Dad in every way, a life lived in caps in a lowercase world.
Once, at the end of his own father’s life, my Dad wrote a story for the AP about the meaning of Fathers Day.
“So do Americans, this Sunday,” he wrote, “celebrate their fathers, and measure the gentle against the gruff, the joy of childhood against the pain of growing up, the harsh study of pride and duty against the lost freedoms of youth, and finally that one man’s presence, however warm, however cool, against his inevitable and final absence.”
This Father’s Day, the sting of that final absence will be softened in my house by the scent of gently simmering sauce, fragrant with cinnamon, and we will tuck into huge plates of spaghetti that would daunt a lesser man.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thank you and God bless.
John Barbour’s Spaghetti Sauce
Note: This sauce can be made ahead, and in fact tastes better that way.
John Barbour’s Middle-Eastern Spaghetti Sauce
21/2 pounds ground beef
1 large onion, chopped
28-ounce can diced tomatoes
28-ounce can whole tomatoes, peeled
Two 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
1/2 small can (6-ounce) tomato paste
3 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
2 teaspoons dried basil
11/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon cinnamon (or more to taste)
Salt and pepper
1 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Parmesan cheese, grated
Brown ground beef in large skillet over medium heat, breaking it into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Add chopped onions to pan and simmer slowly until onions are translucent. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer beef and onions to a Dutch oven or large heavy saucepan. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce, and tomato paste, and bring to a simmer. Break up whole tomatoes with a spoon. Add garlic and herbs and cinnamon. Simmer over low heat for at least an hour.
Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Spoon off as much of the fat from the top of the sauce as you can. (If you have time, you can chill the sauce which makes the fat removal much easier.)