A Single Dad Learns to Cook

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Courtesy of Luke Dempsey)

The first time they came over, at dinnertime I boiled some rotini and heated up a jar of Classico. In the living room, they sat cross-legged, watching Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. As the tomato sauce bubbled, I could hear Bryan Adams on the movie soundtrack sing “This Is Where I Belong.”

But this was not where my twin daughters belonged. They belonged at home, with their mom, from whom I’d split a few weeks earlier. If they were with her, she would probably be making them delicious buttermilk deep-fried chicken; and her ice cream wouldn’t have freezer burn; and their beds would be made and turned down; and in the morning there would be fresh fruit, homemade pancakes, and plenty of maple syrup for everyone. For the three of them, anyway.

The pasta was ready — in fact, it was overcooked. The Classico was burned, too — it coated the nonstick pan. We ate our dinner in front of an animated, anthropomorphized horse, running free across 19th-century America. I shook some shaky cheese (that’s what we always called it when we were a family) on the pasta and tried to eat, but it was no good. Even though the pasta was way past al dente, I couldn’t get it down. The girls never looked up from the movie; Spirit had been captured, and in their concern for him they ate their plates clean.

Eventually — spoiler alert — Spirit is freed, and we three, too, settled into a new life. Every other weekend I’d pick them up from their mom’s house and we’d drive 10 minutes to my apartment, where I’d make more rotini, or heat up a freezer pizza, or, once in a while, pick up McDonald’s on the way.


My love for them was intense, but I couldn’t cook, not really, so we had to make do with trips to the Liberty Science Museum in New Jersey or an afternoon on the swings in the park. There, that’s what love is — not pancakes and delicious homemade chicken.

I was wrong, of course; their mother loved them in a million different ways, but she could also cook — oh, how could she cook. Once in a while she’d consult a recipe, but mostly she was instinctually brilliant in a kitchen. I’d eaten so well for 10 years, the kids for five of those.

And baking? The woman could bake anything. On Sunday evenings, I’d drop the kids off, my heart full and void, imagining what it would be like to yet again kiss them goodbye, yet again let myself out, yet again drive away, alone … but before all this, I’d check the ceramic jar by the toaster oven in case she’d baked. When she had, the jar would be teeming with chocolate cakes and ginger snaps and other desserts too delicious to believe. I’d steal one, or more than one, filling my pockets with the only food I could swallow, and then I’d kiss them and head out, away from them, away.

Days would go by, and I wouldn’t even go into my kitchen. I spent long hours at work, and after that I’d head to a bar and help close it, because the bartender was a friend and the neighborhood not that great. The bartender liked the company, and appreciated me walking home alongside, just in case. Back in the apartment, I’d glance into the kitchen and feel shame, like Withnail and I do in the classic 1987 movie, that there is a “tea bag growing” in the sink. The girls weren’t due for another 10 days; I’d clean up before they arrived, of course. Until then, a few hours’ sleep before work.


The girls had naturally come to assume that I couldn’t cook — it was just as natural to them as making fun of my waifish figure was by nicknaming me after the 230-pound slugger David Ortiz, aka Big Papi. Something had to change: I wanted to love them too, and I wanted to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and I wanted the sink to be spotless. (I knew I’d never hit 519 home runs.)

So I started to cook, just in case it turned out I was able to do so.

Cooking had always seemed like a horrible chore, to me, but then I was a guy, and we find most things that happen in houses (besides sex) to be almost unbearably chore-like. Vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathroom, paying bills, washing up, knowing the size of our kids’ shoes … chore, chore, chore. Cooking was the one chore, though, that one could most easily get out of, because if, like me, you were bad at it — or, probably bad at it — then who wants to eat ill-cooked food? Especially when one’s ex is Julia Child come back to life?

The other thing you can rely on with men is competitiveness, and I was determined if I was going to do this that the kids would eat just as well as they did at their mother’s house. (Well, not as well, but well enough.) I started not with my own tomato sauce, nor even a pesto or a simple carbonara. No, geographically I moved northwest, and headed to Burgundy, in France: the first thing I would make for my girls on a Saturday evening was coq au vin.

It took seven hours.

The chicken in wine didn’t take seven hours because I had decided, in the French way, that I had to find the oldest coq in the enclosure — the one who can’t even reliably crow at dawn — and shed him of his life, pluck him, chop him up, and cook him. That sounds like it could fill at least an hour, or longer if the bird realizes he’s about to be dinner and leads you on a merry dance like Ginger escaping in Chicken Run.

No, it took seven hours because I had no idea that cooking was all about preparation and timing. And when you don’t know that — yet — you tend to do things like, fry some bacon in which you’ll sear the chicken, and once it’s cooked and the bacon put to one side, only then do you realize you have to clean the chicken parts, and dry them, and season them, and by this point the bacon fat is cold, so you have to re-heat it, but the kids need something in the other room, and by the time you’re back your bacon fat is burned, so you have to run down to the store to get more bacon and start the whole thing over, except the chicken-being-ready-to-sear bit — that you’ve nailed.

For every part of the recipe — and yes, I followed (still follow) recipes like Evangelicals follow Scripture — this kind of off-timing was the norm. Pro tip: 7-year-old twin girls can’t not eat for seven hours. That night, they had already finished their rotini and Classico by the time the coq au vin was finally ready to serve, its luscious blood-red sheen hiding winking lardon and smart little pearl onions. The chicken was tender; the flavors pretty great, at least from what I’d tasted as I went.

I’d made a coq au vin; the kitchen looked like Fallujah. The kids were asleep, and I was pretty whacked, so I wrapped the coq au vin up in foil, helped myself to a plate of rotini, and fell asleep watching Lost in Translation, that movie about a lonely man lost in a foreign country, missing his wife who doesn’t miss him.

(Image credit: Luke Dempsey)

In the subsequent years, I have become, well, a sort of cook. I have a white chef’s jacket, and a baking apron the kids got me from Italy that reads RISTORANTE BIG PAPI. Coq au vin has turned from a puzzling obstacle course into a meal I can make with my eyes closed. Same goes for pesto, steak Diane (it’s always 1955 in my house), and something I call chicken Pandowski, a delicious chicken/mustard/white wine/tarragon concoction named, in my house at least, after previous tenants who left behind a welcome mat with their terrific name on it.

I bake now, too — cakes, my own ginger snaps, and an apple pie that is requested by my Thanksgiving adopted family, and by my daughters. At Thanksgiving, my girls head to their grandmother’s house, and I miss them, but they’re almost 17 now, and I wouldn’t be so vain as to imagine they miss me. But sometimes, I like to imagine them missing my cooking, at least, although it is not still without some significant disasters.

Recently I made penne alla vodka, a favorite of one of the girls, and misreading the recipe — told you there’s always a recipe — I employed 1/2 tablespoon of red pepper flakes, instead of 1/4 teaspoon. I thought it looked like a lot (I’m getting pretty good as you can see!), but that’s what the book said. The daughter who likes penne alla vodka gamely ate a mouthful while the rest of us around the table choked and squawked and generally went on as though we were Tsars and our food taster had just died. She said it wasn’t that bad, but I’ll tell you what isn’t that bad: Sonic. They have tater tots, for a start, and it’s a five-minute drive away.

My smart, funny, kind, and beautiful daughters can go hours in between meals, now that they’re older, but still, there’s something so fundamental about feeding your children — I think it’s called love — that the five-minute drive to Sonic that night took three, just in case they were hungry. By the time I got back with the food, my girls had read the recipe I’d followed, and handing me a set of reading glasses they said, almost in unison, “It says 1/4 teaspoon, but thanks for the tots, Big Papi.”