Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's At Steak: Remembering Dad

My Dad was the chef of our family. Having emigrated from the Philippine province of Ilocos, he arrived first in Hawaii with his paternal grandfather before they moved to the mainland and settled in Los Angeles. I was told that at one point, he worked as a cook at a place on Manchester called the Chalon Restaurant, where I assume he gained his understanding of swanky mid-century American gastronomy.

Dad was the celebrity chef of the family on weekends, and would occasionally recreate dishes like lobster Thermidor for my sisters and me when we were growing up. Most of the time, Mom would take care of after-school snacks, birthday cakes, and general kitchen training for my sister and myself. But Dad was the one who gave us an opportunity to eat like the Rat Pack. Although age and convenience have changed our eating habits over the years, I have retained a love of crisp, chewy slices of bacon, plates of spaghetti with thick meat sauce, and medium rare steaks.

Five guys I would have loved to have dinner with. At least three of them would have to sing for their supper.

Unlike today’s houses, where children and their accoutrements dominate a family’s d├ęcor, my two sisters and I grew up in the world of grown-ups, to be seen and sometimes heard on demand. Our immigrant parents subscribed to the American dream with a vengeance and my first glimpses of adult life included a sunken living room, a huge console with a built-in television and stereo, and cigars proudly given to Dad's friends to celebrate a daughter’s birth. (The custom ended with Joselyn, who ironically, is the only one of us who smokes.

I've raved about the strip steak at Grand Casino, but now I realize why I like it so much. The simplicity of its seasoning and the crisp and chewy exterior of the steak remind me of home cooking when Dad presided over the kitchen range. Joselyn remembers that Dad would not only trim the fat off the steaks before cooking them, but fry them in oil and give them to us as a snack. We enjoyed them back then, but I've wondered if this is why she became a vegetarian.

At Grand Casino, when my steak arrives at the table, it always looks like too much food. But I always end up eating the entire thing because it's so good. Tonight I ate it all, not only because of that, but because of an elusive flavor that I cannot name, tinged with nostalgia, curiosity, and longing.

A cut above: the strip steak at Grand Casino is a memory on a plate.

Dad was an old-school parent, fairly stern and of few words. But every summer, I was allowed to accompany him on his rounds as a gardener, back in the days when they did more than cut the grass and take a leaf blower to the yard.

Why I was chosen to do this, I don't know, but I lolled about in his renovated yellow bus with him and his two helpers. I read a lot, daydreamed, and learned the names of almost every plant, tree, weed, and flower that was cultivated in Southern California. We didn't talk much but I remember being really impressed that he could speak fluent Spanish to his assistants, that he would transform an unruly boxwood into a thing of beauty, and that he got to drive around in a renovated yellow bus all day.

Losing a parent is difficult at any age, and probably more so when they live a long life. It is easy to lionize a parent that is gone, and I wonder how Dad would have weathered all the changes of the last 30 years, within the family and throughout the world. I wonder now if we ever would have gotten to talking, really talking. I wonder if he would be happy about how my sisters and I turned out, how he would spend time with the grandsons he never met, if he would ever get the hang of an iPhone or a microwave.

May 10 was Dad's birthday. According to an L.A. County death certificate I found online, he would be 102 this year. Later, I found evidence that he was much younger than that, but I like to think of him as a centenarian; I could get his image put on a quarter that way. In that time, my sisters and I have only managed to celebrate his birthday with a special meal a couple of times. But I think that each of us celebrates him in her own way every time she eats well.

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