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Credit: Subin Yang
personal essay

In My Family, Love Smells Like French Fries

published Oct 10, 2020
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I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s with parents who worked all the time, three brothers, and a gray-and-white longhaired cat named Oliver. We lived in a ranch-style house on an acre of land surrounded by cornfields, just outside the town limits of a village in Ohio.

I don’t remember my parents ever not working. We rarely took family vacations. My dad, a full-time principal at a vocational high school, and my mom, a former teacher, also owned a restaurant (eventually there were two) called the Dairy Barn. The restaurant was kind of similar to Dairy Queen, and it consumed the majority of their waking hours. People advised my parents that the restaurant business was far from lucrative, but they did it anyway. My dad had always wanted to open a restaurant. It was never about the money. 

My mom was at the restaurant during the day, every day. And in the evenings, one of my parents supervised the small high school staff (which often included one of my brothers and me). There were usually just two or three employees working at a time: one person would man the register; someone else would swirl ice cream cones, make milkshakes, and fill the drink cups; and then my mom or dad did the most of the grilling and frying. If things were slow, there was always cleaning or restocking to do.

When Mom came home late after I was already in bed, she would lean over me, still smelling like grease from the fryers, to kiss my cheek. Truthfully, she always smelled like a french fry.  

It wasn’t until high school that I realized that not everyone’s parents worked 12 hours a day or more, seven days a week. When I finally listened to other kids tell their “what I did on my summer vacation” stories (and the stories didn’t mention anything about cooking burgers on a grill in a hot restaurant), I was a little angry. I usually worked the day shift at the restaurant throughout summer vacation (except for a week in August when I went to all-day band camp). I thought my parents weren’t giving us proper childhoods; I thought we were being deprived of basic fun.

While other kids I knew did things like watch reruns of Happy Days or MTV all day, I cooked. The Dairy Barn offered soft-serve ice cream, milkshakes, burgers, hot dogs, and fries. Everything was made to order, when people ordered (really). My favorite job was dumping frozen french fries into a heavy wire basket and then submerging the basket into a vat of hot oil. None of us thought it odd that my brothers and I were expert burger flippers by the time we were 10. Here’s the trick: The perfect burger starts with a quick flip after an initial 30-second sear on one side. Next, I used the cast iron grill press for about four minutes on each side, although I never actually timed it by a clock. Instead, I used the length of a rock or pop song (plus the first bit of a second one) as a cook-time guide.

I also learned that swirling a symmetrical soft-serve ice cream cone is all in the wrist. You have to move the hand holding the cone in a counter-clockwise direction while also moving it down away from the machine (although some people — like my brother — swirl their cones clockwise.) It’s something that takes practice; not something that you can read in an instruction manual. Making ice cream cones is an oddly individual thing.

And the best hot dogs? They came out best when left in the deep fryer long enough to develop some crispiness on the outside (the telltale sign was when light brown spots started to appear). 

It wasn’t just all cooking, however. Sundays at the Dairy Barn were ice cream- and milkshake-machine cleaning days. Those machines have all kinds of washers and rings and metal parts. We dismantled them completely every week, cleaned them by dipping the parts into three sinks: one each containing soapy water, rinse water, and sanitizing solution. We laid them out to dry overnight on towels.

And when my parents decided to repaint the dining room or take care of other repairs, my brothers and I helped. My least favorite Saturday activity was assisting Dad in his restaurant-improvement projects. He’s a patient man that believes in the “do it right the first time” work ethic and the value of “elbow grease.” He doesn’t believe in rushing through a job or doing things cheaply or cutting corners. My education and “apprenticeship” in things like plumbing, electrical rewiring, painting, tiling, woodworking, and drywall have annoyed many a general contractor in my adult life.

Even though I sometimes resented all the time at the restaurant, my childhood wasn’t all work. My brothers and I played game after game of touch football. We raced bikes up and down a dirt path that marked the edge of our back yard — all-out racing, the kind where you have no fear of injury, where you think you’re invincible and that you can never, ever lose. We crashed too. We produced so many scraped knees that Mom talked about buying stock in Band-Aid.

Looking back now, on that childhood of bruised elbows and french fries, I can attest that I wouldn’t have the work ethic and resilience I have today (nor the ability to expertly roll mountains of coins into paper wrappers: not the kind that are rigid on one end) if it hadn’t been for the restaurant and all the hours I spent working for my parents. I think it taught me, among other things, that little in life is easy but still you persevere.

I live in Manhattan now, and own an apartment, but I’ve never had what most people would consider a “real” job. I’ve managed to (somehow) make a decent living doing things that I love as a freelancer. And I owe that to the tools and values my parents gave me; believing and pursuing my dreams no matter what anybody else said, not giving up, and working hard (because results take time).

I wouldn’t change my greasy childhood for anything, not even a vacation to Disney World every year.

We might not have taken many vacations, but we took a lot of family repair and renovation trips or afternoon excursions to the back kitchen of the Dairy Barn. My brothers and I filled the long, boring hours of painting second coats, restocking the paper goods, and cleaning the ice cream machine with telling stories about space travel and galaxies far, far away.  Some people have required family dinners; we had required family work time.

We learned how to work together. We discovered that if one person did the edging and the other rolled the middle, we finished faster. We took turns stirring the mortar. We knew sometimes it took four hands and the strength of a 12-year-old and an 11-year-old to turn a stubborn valve. We also knew that two people sweeping the dining room floor and wiping down tables meant we’d get to go outside and run around with our friends twice as fast.

Whenever I find myself nostalgic for my childhood or missing my mom, I go to my neighborhood burger place, Harlem Shake. All burger joints smell the same: It’s the grease and the oil used in the deep fryers. To me, it’s the smell of comfort and safety and home. During the pandemic, it’s enough to just order delivery from Harlem Shake; if I open my apartment door, I can smell the french fries and burgers the entire way up to my fifth-floor walkup.

Now in their 80s, Mom and Dad have slowed down. The restaurant is long gone. There are no vats of hot oil to dump french fries into, or ice cream machines to be cleaned. My brothers, continuing the family tradition of work vacations, make trips to each other’s houses to complete home-improvement projects. Often my dad goes along to supervise. Sometimes Mom and I plan a little escape. We go to an ice cream or frozen yogurt shop, the kind where you can make your own sundae. Then we take turns spinning cone after perfect symmetrical cone.