I was seven years old the first time I was allowed to cook by myself. It was breakfast (to this day, still my favourite meal) and I was cooking for my Dad.
My parents had just split up, and it was my weekend for visitation with him. I had recently begun weekly trips to the library with my aunt to check out cookbooks, which I read like novels. The week before, I had checked out a cookbook for kids. Typically, I avoided those because they weren’t as interesting to read as the grown-up ones, but I was hoping I could talk my Dad into letting me actually cook something and knew that in order to convince him, the simpler the better. I had found a recipe for “baked bacon,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of cooking bacon on the stove top, the instructions were to cook the bacon on a sheet pan in a 350 degree oven. I would pair the bacon with French toast, a dish I was fairly certain I could manage without much help.
My little plan worked, of course. My Dad was almost always game for a kitchen experiment, and although he was a little uncertain about this whole baked bacon business, we made our shopping list and headed out to the store for supplies. That afternoon, we went to the movies and out for pizza, but I could hardly contain the giddy excitement I felt knowing that when I woke up the next morning I would be given full run of the kitchen. I was imagining fluffy stacks of french toast, perfectly browned on each side and dripping with syrup, on a plate next to the most delicious, crispy bacon anyone had ever eaten.
I woke up early the next morning and paced around the kitchen reading my little handwritten bacon “recipe” over and over and over again until I had every step memorized. I had to get the timing just right, so the bacon came out of the oven and onto my Dad’s plate just in time to slide those two piping hot slices of French toast out of the pan to join it. When Dad woke up, I had the frying pan on the stove, the sheet pan covered in foil and the bacon laid out, the oven preheated, and the milk/egg/sugar/vanilla mixture whipped to a froth in a mixing bowl. He just laughed and sat down at the kitchen table with a sketch pad and said, “Have at it, kiddo. I’m hungry!”
I carefully slid the pan of bacon into the oven and closed the oven door. With the frying pan heated and the butter melted, I dipped the thick slices of Texas toast into the egg batter and carefully laid them into the pan. For about 20 minutes, I worked in complete silence, with such concentration that Dad actually had to remind me to breathe at one point. As the clock ticked, the kitchen filled with the smell of bacon. There was a tricky moment at about the 10 minute mark, when I had to open the oven. slide the hot rack out, flip each slice of bacon, and get the oven door closed again without disturbing the sputtering bacon grease, but after that, it was all smooth sailing. I did have to get some help when it was time to take the bacon out of the oven, but I immediately ordered Dad back to his chair so I could finish once he’d set the pan down.
When everything was plated, I poured us each a glass of milk and finally, finally, I sat down at my place and declared it Time To Eat.
“One second. I forgot something,” said Dad. He walked over to the fridge and grabbed a small box. Then, he took a bowl out of the cabinet and poured the contents of the box into it before bringing it to the table. I was this close to being upset that he’d taken over my breakfast, but then I saw what was in the bowl. Unbeknownst to me, he’d managed to sneak a box of frozen strawberries into the grocery cart. They’d thawed in the fridge all night, and here they were, ready to top our French toast. It was absolutely the best little “something extra” our breakfast needed.
While we ate, we talked about school, my latest art project, my friends, and just about everything else. There were no reminders about elbows on the table or talking with my mouth full, both of which I’m pretty sure I did the entire meal given that I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do more: gobble down my food or just keep telling my Dad every single thing I could think of to tell him.
When our plates were clean, Dad proclaimed it the Best Breakfast Ever, then, without any pause, picked up that bowl of strawberries and poured the rest of it, juice and all, into my milk. He gave it a big stir, then said, “Finish your milk,” and started clearing the table.
I drank that glass of milk as slowly as I possibly could while my Dad cleaned the kitchen. I couldn’t speak. I just took tiny sips until finally, all that remained was a chunk of strawberry in a little puddle of pink. I tilted the glass all the way back and let that last bit of fruit plop into my mouth, and I just sat there and grinned until he took the glass away, snapping me out of my little moment.
I can’t tell you why that simple thing blew me away like it did. If I’d have had the words at the age of seven to articulate it, I would have told you that what he had just done pretty much summed up everything I loved about my Dad. He was funny, and silly, and spur of the moment, and of all the memories I have of him, this is the one that is still crystal clear for me. In fact, even at 38, with years of wonderful meals behind me, this is the strongest food memory I have.
This time of year naturally leads us to remember the friends and family who aren’t with us to celebrate. I like to think, if my Dad was still around, that I’d still be making breakfast for him every once in awhile, and as we finished our plates there would still be just enough strawberries left in the bowl to make another glass of that magical strawberry milk.