Lessons from my dad: on patience, pruning & burnt chicken

by kellybakes in


I need to confess something: I'm not a good cook... I should be a lot better given the fact that my favorite childhood memories were formed sitting on a stool, legs dangling far from the floor, watching my dad prepare food for hours in the commercial kitchen he used for his catering business. I watched in awe as he'd stand over the stove with his hand on a pan, flick his wrist and make sauces dance and ingredients leap into the air, only to land safely back into the pan moments later.

Last week, I stood in front of my stove with my hand on pan that had all the markings of a slightly charred meal. I thought back to my father's finesse and I wondered whether it would be worth it to try to scrub away the burnt-on mess or if I should just give up and throw the pan away. Prolonging a decision, I sighed and walked out to my garden to get away from the smoky smell of my kitchen.

As I sat on my patio steps looking out at the tangled mess of overgrown plants in front of me, my dad came back to my thoughts. As a kid, I remember him haphazardly throw seeds out into the perpetually-tilled rectangle of soil that was his garden and, within weeks, he'd have healthy, lush plants that fed our family until the chill of fall. His tomato plants would tower above my head and his squash stalks would sprawl out into the grass, dotting our lawn with bright yellow veggies that I would be tasked to collect in a wicker bread basket.


I started my garden with the best of intentions. I remember how happy I was being with my dad as a child, crouching in the dirt to pull weeds and peeking under leaves to see if anything new had sprouted. I went to an urban farm and bought kale, cucumber and herb plants. I bought broccoli, sweet potato and a host of heirloom tomato starts. I even transported my blueberry bush and raspberry shoots down from my mom's house in Connecticut. I had idealistic visions of nearly-zero grocery bills all summer thanks to an edible Eden in my back patio. What I got instead was kale-destroying caterpillars, a heatwave in July, fruit-less tomato plants and a big dose of reality.

In some ways, I take after my dad. I look just like him, show affection through teasing, love to feed people and I have a knack for getting things to grow. What I never realized about my dad, however, was that despite being boisterous and extroverted, he has unspoken knowledge and quiet patience for things like cooking and growing food. For as much as I watched him and shadowed his every move as a child, I never thought to ask how to tell when chicken is done or how to properly prune tomato plants. Even in my clearest memories, everything he did seemed to come easily and naturally.

Now, as an adult, I recognize that life isn't so effortless. Cooking is more than standing in front of the stove heating food in a pan. It takes patience and practice. Gardening is more than planting seeds and tilling soil once a year. It takes knowledge and care. And, as with many things, it's better to harvest one basket of well-tended tomatoes than to have a variety of plants that won't grow anything. With that in mind, I spent the next two hours thinking about life, scrubbing a charred frying pan and pruning six foot tall tomato plants. I may not learn to be a patient, focused person overnight, but if what I found this weekend is any indication, I think I'm on the right track...