How Cooking With My Dad Helped Me Heal After My Mom's Death

by Talia Ergas

My mother was an incredible cook. I still crave her oven-baked salmon, her spaghetti bolognese, her blackberry cracker and whipped cream tarts and even her famous salad dressing guests constantly requested the recipe for.

My father, like many fathers, could throw together a mean barbecue and maybe fry some eggs on a Sunday morning, but he didn't do much else.

He bought the bagels for brunch, and he offered to make the occasional sandwich.

If my mother was ever held up, and he had to throw together dinner, every vegetable in the fridge became an ingredient for a giant salad, topped off with a can of packed tuna.

But cooking? It wasn't Dad’s thing. The kitchen was my mom’s.

My mother passed away three summers ago. As it happens when someone dies, people were bringing us food for weeks. Neighbors showed up with platters of deli sandwiches.

Friends brought crockpots full of meatballs in sauce. For a while, my father, sister and I were well fed by the kind gestures of others.

But then September rolled around, and my sister returned to college.

Then it was just me — a recent graduate living at home again — and my father, on our own. And the biggest question every night was: What do we eat?

It started out rough. In the beginning, there were a lot of barbecues, pasta nights and, of course, Dad’s everything-in-it salads.

We tried Costco frozen prepared salmon in little packages and frozen Ikea meatballs with frozen fries.

It was okay, but every night felt like we were throwing something pre-packaged together or recycling the same two meals we knew how to make.

Nothing felt truly home-cooked. Nothing felt like it was made with love.

Finally, I'd had enough. I had recently started a job at a lifestyle magazine, and I spent a large portion of each day browsing recipes and food blogs.

Most of them were extremely daunting (herb-crusted rack of lamb with heirloom potatoes? No way!), but every now and then, I’d stumble upon a recipe in the “Under 30-Minute Meals” or “Easy Weeknight Dinners” category, and I’d think, "Hmm, I could make that."

Dad went grocery shopping every Saturday morning, and one Saturday, I decided to go with him.

With me, I brought a printout of a recipe I’d found online: sautéed pork cutlets with parmesan.

The ingredient list was simple, mostly things we had in the house plus the cutlets and some herbs.

But, we enjoyed scouring the grocery store aisles together, trying to figure out the right kind of meat cut and where the heck they kept the fresh parsley.

That night, I assumed the role of head chef, and my father was my faithful sous chef.

He chopped the parsley and juiced the lemons, I placed the pork in the pan and, fingers crossed behind my back, watched it fry.

The look on my father’s face as we took our first bites that night is something I will never forget: accomplishment.

The meal was delicious, but more importantly, we had made it from a recipe together and without help. From there, it became a weekly tradition.

Every Saturday, we’d go to the grocery store together and select the ingredients from a new recipe. Every Sunday, we’d work together to cook it.

Along the way, we had plenty of fails. The salmon with olives and fennel left much to be desired, and the time we made a tuna casserole, we were stuck with leftovers for four nights in a row.

But, each time we tried a new recipe, we spent hours together pushing the cart in the grocery store, chopping vegetables side by side at the kitchen counter, and Googling what a broiler was and how to zest a lemon.

Eventually, we made that roast rack of lamb, and it was incredible. It even looked, dare I say, fancy.

When I think of my mother, one of my biggest regrets has always been that I never asked her to teach me to cook.

She was so wonderful at it, and it would have been special to one day cook the things for my children my mother had made for me.

I don’t get to go back in time and do it, but I know something else: If my mother had taught me how to cook, my father and I would have never bonded over figuring it out. A missed opportunity became a gift I feel lucky to have.

I have since moved out of my father’s house and am living on my own now, fledgling cooking skills included.

But my father, my sister and I have an ongoing group text where we share photos each night of our solo cooking adventures: an attempted country-fried steak, a cheesy bowl of bacon carbonara and the occasional everything-in-it Dad salad.

We haven’t quite mastered it, but we’re trying, and the trying is what keeps us together.

I imagine my mother is in the group text, too, and she smiles at each photo, proud of her little chefs that keep it going.

And now, when I’m feeling hungry, I crave the meals Dad and I would make.