This Apron Strings guest post in celebration of Father’s Day was written by Sarah B. Hood is the author of several books, most recently We Sure Can: How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lore of Local Food. I have a copy on my bookshelf and Sarah’s recipes kept me inspired all through the harvest. Check out Sarah’s blog Toronto Tasting Notes for her musings on the Toronto food scene.
My dad, Hugh Hood, was a prolific author. Like my mom, he was born in a Year of the Dragon: a circumstance that, my sister points out, had its disadvantages. The dragon is strong, dynamic and inspiring, but, unfortunately, imaginary. Thus, she says, both our parents have endowed us with a rich creative life, but a comparatively tenuous grasp on everyday matters like money.
Unlike my mother, whose father was a popular dentist in a prosperous town, my father’s family was hit hard by the Depression. His mother did something that no one did in those days: she separated from her husband for several years, while he struggled, beset by numerous challenges, in an unsuccessful banking career.
Through poverty, precarious housing and family upheaval, dad found comfort in familiar, predictable repetition and routine. This tendency helped him excel academically; he earned a PhD at the University of Toronto. Much of his sustenance and pleasure came from the comfort food of diners like Fran’s, and through my childhood the meals he best enjoyed were the diner-style fare we so often ate: hamburger patties, baked beans and French fries; Shepherd’s pie; hot beef sandwiches; fish sticks, with ice cream or fruit cocktail for dessert.
He loved deli food, especially smoked meat, and I recall one great innovation in the routine, when my mother figured out how to prepare a Reuben Grill as he remembered them from the ’40s: a culinary landmark in our home.
Dad actually interdicted the serving of spaghetti for some years, on the grounds that my mother “never makes it the same way twice!” Although he adored Italy, he stuck staunchly to a short list of familiar trattorias there, and would visit Italian McDonald’s rather than risk being served an unexpected or unfamiliar dish.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Dad was not much of a cook. However, I do have one early food memory that dates from about the age of six, before my sister was born. My mom was for some reason away, so Dad prepared and served up the evening meal for me and my two brothers.
I don’t recall the details of the meal, except that it consisted of “meat and two veg” (and that the carbohydrate content in this case was potato chips.) I do remember what he said about it. “I’m not like some fathers, who can’t cook a meal for their children,” he said. “When your mother is away, I can prepare a good meal. Women shouldn’t have all the responsibility for feeding the kids.”
I also remember how this made me feel. I felt loved and cared for. I felt proud of my father. I also understood and learned his little lesson about fairness in marriage and equity in general: typical of my dad, who was a loving and involved father, a considerate husband and a very decent man. And characteristic, too, that the food itself would be secondary to the profound associations that went with it.
Happy Father’s Day, Hugh Hood (1929-2000)!
Hugh Hood’s Favourite Deli-style Reuben Grill
This is a mid-20th century diner standard that was largely abandoned in the wave of health-consciousness after about 1970. However, it’s right in line with the food trends of the moment, and I see it’s making a comeback on the menus of a few high-end retro eateries. It’s also delicious.
- Layer thinly-sliced corned beef or pastrami, Swiss cheese, and cole slaw or sauerkraut on a slice of rye bread (the kind with caraway seeds).
- Spread plain yellow mustard (not Dijon) on a second slice and close the sandwich. (I see that some people use Russian dressing instead, but Dad never did.)
- Butter the two outside layers of bread and toast the sandwich over low to medium heat in a cast iron frying pan or the equivalent until both sides are golden. The goal is to warm the sandwich right through and melt the cheese before the bread begins to burn.
- Serve hot on a plate with a dill pickle on the side.