June 20, 2010

Meals with my father
Ariel Leve measure out a relationship in bagels and ice cream

My father has always said: "Food without spices is like a day without sushine." But for me, a day without sunshine is no big loss.

When it comes to food, like everything else, we couldn't be more different. My father is easy to please. He'll eat something mediocre without a fuss. "You don't think this fish tastes rubbery?" I'll ask. "It didn't bother me," he'll say. "Until you pointed it out."

He lives now in southeast Asia. My parents divorced when I was young and my father moved to Thailand. I would visit him in Bangkok and eat pad thai or chicken satay. I was a lot more adventurous when I was six. My favourite food was sticky rice with mango. But even then I was particular. He would ask if I was happy with the sticky rice. I'd consider this before replying: "It's too sticky."

A lot of our bonding took place over food. Patterns developed. No matter how slow I'm eating, it's never slow enough. A season will change before he finishes an appetiser. I take comfort in the fact that it's the one area of life where he displays anxiety. To this day, before I take a bite, he will hold up his hand in a gesture of apprehension and say: "Slow down." Slow down? I haven't begun eating yet. Of course, the minute he tells me to slow down, I speed up.

My father's notoriously slow eating habits used to mystify his mother, my grandmother. She was an old-fashioned Jewish grandmother who would cook for days ahead of time when she knew we were coming for a visit and pile the table high with abnormal portions of brisket and kugel and kreplach. While everyone else was pigging out on seconds and thirds, he was still gently cutting the gefilte fish.

He was health-conscious before it was fashionable. He talked a lot about balance and moderation; and still does. My grandmother would set out platters of bagels, lox and cream cheese and he would choose fruit and cottage cheese. She never understood this and chalked it up to him living in the tropics.

While he was conscious of what he ate for health reasons, I was conscious of what I ate for neurotic reasons. I would sit at the table and design my bagel like it was a work of art. It had to be exactly the right piece of tomato, and the ratio of lox to cream cheese was a meticulous procedure. This is going back to 1978 when I was 10 years old. Those heady days when I ate wheat.

When he came to New York I'd beg him to take me to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. Thirty one flavours! I'd make him read them all out. I was too small to see the ice cream displayed so he would lift me up and recite one flavour after another. I would insist he go through all 31, and in the end get the same thing. Chocolate. This happened every time.

While I don't inherit my fussiness from him, the indecision might be in the DNA. When we go out to eat, I am the first to decide what to order.

Recently, I was with him in Bali. He asked me ahead of time what he should know about that I can't eat. I sent him a list that was epic. He wrote back: "We'll deal with it when you're here."

We had breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day for two weeks. Every morning, he would (slowly) pour olive oil on to his toast. It was a massive amount and it bothered me. I couldn't help but say: "Not so much." This was the ritual: him telling me to slow down, me telling him to go easy on the olive oil. One morning he asked: "How many days do you have left?"

Most nights he ate spicy food. I can't stand spicy food, and Indonesia is like an oven; it's uncomfortable enough without the extra sweating. "Sweating is great!" he exclaimed. "The hotter the better. It gets rid of the toxins." No thanks. I prefer my mouth not be on fire and I'm happy to leave the toxins inside me in air-conditioned comfort.

Before I left Bali, I asked my father about his favourite meal. He smiled. "My favourite meal is the next one." I thought about this. He is always looking ahead. My favourite meal is in the past.

And I'm sure it was with him.