The surfeit of default Father’s Day gifts — sous vide machines, marinades, and novelty aprons, burger kits, hot sauces, and grill gadgets — offers a not-so-subtle directive: A father is he who puts food on his family’s table. This is what it means to be a dad, and thus, fatherhood and food are forever entwined. But what of a dad who cannot cook?
Before I had kids, I fantasized about what meals would be like when I did have them. In my mind, my baby — babies, maybe — wife, and I would sit at various and sundry chic restaurants. During lazy Sundays, we’d eat eggs Florentine and drink Bloody Marys as our child(ren?) savored scrambled eggs on a tranche of charred peasant bread. The Lumineers would play in the background, on a loop, forever. Ho. Hey.
Dinner might be at Motorino or Momofuku or maybe basement momos in Woodside. Prune! Pastis! Pok Pok! Marea! Aldea! Saraghina! But rarely if ever did these fantasies involve a meal made at home. I was a restaurant man before I was a father. I moved to New York — a city I did not yet know to be inimical to family life on a writer’s income — to be closer to them and ate nearly all my meals prepared by others in semipublic spaces.
One of the first fights my wife and I had after our eldest son was born in 2012 was maybe a week after she had given birth and I insisted we have dinner at Sel de Mer, a mediocre and now-closed French restaurant around the corner from our house in Brooklyn. She, of course, didn’t want to go. (She had just given birth.) The ferocity with which I insisted still shakes me with shame, eight years later. It was one of the first of many silent, resentful dinners we had at restaurants as it became clear that the fantasy I had of a family in New York was just that: fantasy.
Even when our first son was breastfeeding, food became a battleground. In 2012, when he was just a year old, I got a job as a restaurant critic at the New York Observer mostly to provide myself with an excuse to eat out on somebody else’s dime but also, looking back on it now, as a way to justify clinging to my bon vivant lifestyle. By the time our second son was born in 2013, his brother had developed into what can charitably be called a picky eater. By then we were living in Harlem and his repertoire consisted, in its entirety, of chicken makhani roti from Chapati House. The grilled vegetables, simple pastas, fresh salads, feijoada, moqueca, salpicao my wife made were left largely uneaten. The kid didn’t touch them, and I was never home.
After the divorce, I started making pizza. By then, my older son was 7; his brother 5. We were far from the days of Chapati House, both figuratively and literally, since we had moved from Harlem to Park Slope to Windsor Terrace to Kensington, and then me, further out toward Coney Island. Both kids only ate homemade pizza, which in their definition meant pizza without sauce.
I, who had lived and eaten through the Great Neapolitan Pizza Revolution of 2009, yearned for the bubbles and char of Una Pizza Napoletana and bought an outdoor pizza oven. With no yard, I used it indoors in my new apartment, propping the propane tank upon the stove. (A worse idea I haven’t had since.) But I never mastered the pizzaiola’s effortless flick of her peel. The inchoate dough was simply shoved into the fire. Flames flared. The smoke detector blared and my children ran, justifiably terrified, into their rooms.
Everything that could go wrong did. My dough would tear or else remain excessively thick, leading to flabby, uncooked pies. “Mom’s pizza is better,” said the older one. “It’s okay, Daddy,” said the younger, now 6 and tremendously concerned with my feelings. “I know you’re trying” — he walked around the table and gave me a pat — “but Mom’s pizza is better.”
On the nights when I didn’t have my kids, I’d practice making batches and batches of dough. (This before flour became a hot commodity in the post-COVID world.) One night, as I waited for the dough to rise, I realized, belatedly, that impatience has been my problem all along: A properly risen dough is a function of the ferment of its surroundings. When hurried or rushed, the glutinous strands lack elasticity and snap. The dough cannot relax. These are lessons learned at home but not from eating out.
So there I sat, gazing upon my cheap kitchen cabinets — the same style I’ve had since I moved to New York in 1999. They are reminders that all the money I spent eating out could have bought a house with a yard for the kids and an island in the kitchen and a fancy wooden salad bowl with a comically large spork. I think of the kitchens of my friends and professional colleagues: old fireplaces turned into rotisseries, vast prep areas at weekend homes upstate. Nice cabinets.
Sometimes I wish their houses (and second houses) came with those maroon historical markers, like the one on 75 1/2 Bedford Street that says Edna Saint Vincent Millay lived there. Instead of that, they’d note, “This house was purchased with the help of my parents” or “This house was remodeled with funds we saved on childcare costs because his parents live in Connecticut and drive down every week and also they paid for private preschool.” Of course then I’d have to epoxy a sign on my front door, too: “This apartment is rented because Joshua David Stein liked restaurants too much.” Maybe it’s better not to compare.
Now that we’ve been in our quarantine bubble for three months, the closest I’ve gotten to eating out is the occasional bagel with egg and cheese at Terrace Bagels, with its broken neon sign in which the legs of the anthropomorphic bagel logo have fallen off, leaving jagged and potentially toxic neon stumps. One would think this amputation might liberate the logo to return to its natural bagel form, but instead, it dangles sadly, a cane in one arm and chef’s hat with the word “deli” written across it. It bums me out so much I’d rather stay home and cook.
At any rate, I’ve had plenty of time to practice my pizza-making skills, and plenty of time to think about where I got where I am, and plenty of time to chew over what “dad food” is and what it isn’t. Dad food is not buying a whole fish from Le District — as I did when I had a good editorial job at Time Inc., when both those things existed — and stuffing it with herbs and sprinkling it with salt and serving it to three human beings, none of whom eat whole fish, when even the trout is looking at you with its accusatory eye as if to say, “JDS, what were you thinking?” Dad food is not dragging your kids to restaurants on school nights — or even weekends — because you think they should love it, even though the obvious lamentations indicate otherwise.
Dad food isn’t even about putting food on a table. It’s about planning what to make at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m., when you get home, and the kids are fighting and tired, and they only want to eat pizza and chicken nuggets. Dad food is letting go of your fantasy and nourishing reality. It’s always been this; I just didn’t realize it until my life cracked open like a Kinder egg and I nearly choked on the surprise.
What’s the use of a novelty apron that says “World’s Greatest Dad” when you don’t even have a yard? But sometimes, sometimes you make a homemade pizza in the outdoor oven that you MacGyvered to work inside and the crust is golden. The mozzarella shimmers like a lake of cheese at sunset and it doesn’t matter that there’s no sauce. The pie slides off the baking tray onto a cutting board and doesn’t stick. The Lumineers play on Spotify, your kids aren’t fighting, and the world seems to be tilting off its axis, but here, for a moment, in the kitchen, at dinner on Tuesday, this much is true: Dad food is good food and you are, for a few bites at least, a good dad.
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