My Father and the Onion
In my family I’m the peacekeeper — the perceptive one, the one who remembers things people have forgotten. Basically, I get things first. So I was a little taken aback when my older brother — older by just 14 months, mind you — was completely nonchalant when I brought up my realization that I was friends with our parents.
“I think I’m friends with Mom and Dad,” I said. “Yeah,” he replied, pausing just long enough to let the I’m older and wiser than you settle in. “Guess what else,” he says. “They’re people too.” My brother, J, is the observant one. He sees things before most people and waits and waits to tell you about it until it’s the right time for you to know it.
Truth is, I’ve been friends with my mom from the very beginning. We’ve always had too much in common (flaws included) to not be friends. But my relationship with my father — always excellent, and a bit traditional — finally found its footing thanks to an onion.
The cooking in my family has seen many iterations. Growing up, my mom mostly cooked during the week. She has her specialities — curried chickpeas and spinach, raisin-bread grilled cheese, and anything to do with eggs. She is a wizard when it comes to eggs. My dad cooked on the weekends. And every single thing he makes begins with tomatoes, onions, and garlic. Cecil sofrito. And depending on the level of attention he’d give to whatever he was cooking, the doneness of the onions would range from barely cooked (ew, no) to translucent, tender, and sweet (yep, still not eating it).
I don’t remember making the declaration about not liking onions, but I surely said it out loud at some point, because before my dad would plate up breakfast or dinner, he’d take all the onions out of my food, saying out loud to me and or maybe no one at all that “Hali doesn’t like onions.” And if any of that vile allium did make it onto my plate, whether we were at home or a restaurant, he’d take them off right away. My father, conqueror of onions, was my first introduction to chivalry.
As I got older, not much about my relationship with onions changed. I still avoided them at all costs. I found their acrid flavor aggressive and lingering. What was the point of something so overwhelming?
Then I started to help my parents in the kitchen, and the first thing I was tasked with? You guessed it: chopping the onions. And since onions were inseparable from anything my dad was cooking, I spent plenty of time standing next to him chopping onions and talking. We had real conversations that moved from what movies we liked to something interesting he’d heard on the radio. We talked about everything from my grandmother to places we’d like to visit to our thoughts on religion. And then the onions would go into the skillet with the tomatoes and garlic.
One afternoon, my dad asked me to watch them while he ran out to pick up something from the store. “Don’t let them burn,” he said.
A lot about how you feel about something changes when you are responsible for how it turns out. We spent the afternoon in the kitchen, and my eyes watered from chopping all those onions — I wasn’t going to let those suckers burn no matter how much I disliked them. While I watched them cook, I thought about all this new information I learned about my dad, not just in this one afternoon, but over my little lifetime. My dad, who isn’t just my dad, but a person who has a life outside of his wife and three kids. Turns out he is far more complex than just him being dad allowed. And then a thought dawned: I think I just made a friend!
I’m pretty sure I burned the onions that day, and I’m even more certain I didn’t eat them. But it took an onion to introduce me to my father, my friend. Today, my dad and I are as good of friends as ever. And while I remain skeptical about onions in general, I’ve been known to dabble in the caramelized sort from time to time. But I can never see one — Vidalia, white, red, yellow, green, or otherwise — without thinking, “I wonder what Dad is up to.” So I pick up a phone and call him to find out, because our friendship is, in part, my responsibility to watch — and I don’t want the onions to burn.