Dad was born in 1916 and was from a generation of men typically insulated from household chores. But he was the oldest of three and his single mom was the family’s sole support. He had to help out any way he could, including caring for his siblings and chores around the house.
These early experiences were reinforced during the Great Depression, which hit when he was about 14. He went off to the Civilian Conservation Corps to make money to send home, which was quickly followed by a tour in the Navy from 1936 to 1939. All these experiences taught him that chores were pretty much gender neutral. And I think he truly enjoyed the cooking part.
I have lots of memories of Dad cooking and cleaning alongside Mom and us kids. Mom undoubtedly cooked more meals than Dad, but the ones he took over were fun, different and delicious. A few of his weekday meal offerings included tacos, breakfast for dinner and his nod to the Navy: SOS.
In the Midwest in the 1960s, our tortillas came in a can. Dad would open the can and start the meat mixture while the trusty iron skillet was melting fat for frying the tortillas. We kids would chop the lettuce and onion, cut up tomatoes and shred cheese. We waited with great impatience while the tortillas were fried to perfection. Dad would even put a fold in them so they looked like the modern pre-made taco shells. But they were better because they didn’t shatter. The grease from the meat and tortillas would mix and drip down our fingers and sometimes into our sleeves. So good!
Breakfast for dinner was usually reserved for Friday nights. It could consist of bacon, eggs and toast or maybe pancakes. Either way, Dad was the chef. He would grab that trusty iron skillet and fry up the bacon, filling the pan with lots of bacon grease. The bacon would go into the oven to stay warm. Then he used a splatter technique on the eggs that included cracking them directly into that pan of grease and splattering the hot stuff over the tops of the eggs to set the yolk and whites.
The eggs were dripping with bacon fat and divine. I would save one buttered slice of toast to dip in bacon fat and fold over a couple pieces of bacon with ketchup added.
Don’t judge me. I was a skinny kid and it was the ’60s.
SOS is a quintessential Navy offering. It consists of chipped dried beef in a cream gravy served over toast. Dad would soak the chipped beef in water to get some of the salt out and start preparing the cream gravy while the beef was soaking. And, of course, the gravy was made in that trusty iron skillet. He mixed butter and flour to form a roux, and added milk to the pan until the mixture thickened up. He added lots of black pepper and the beef at the end while making toast.
In addition to weekday suppers, Dad would indulge in unexpected and random offerings on Sundays. He could be found early on a Sunday morning getting bread dough into the oven to rise, or making his baked beans.
I think bread was our favorite of these surprises. We kids anticipated it all day and were slaves to the smell of baking bread wafting around the house. Once baked, no one could touch the loaves until Dad deemed they were perfect for slicing. We lined up like supplicants with our paper napkins and a couple of knives waiting for Dad to dispense this great treasure. Butter was liberally applied and, of course, ended up melting and dripping all over us as we devoured the delicious bread.
Dad’s baked beans were unusual. They weren’t sweet like Boston baked beans and they weren’t soupy like canned beans from the major brands. He usually used salt pork and sometimes bacon or ham hocks. He added tomato sauce somewhere toward the end of the baking time. Sometimes, lunch would be a beany soup made from the half-cooked pot of beans in the oven. The beans would be soft enough to eat by then, but his dish would not yet be complete. The completed baked offering was dark and a little crusty on top. The beans were soft and moist under that top layer of yummy crustiness. We would all dig eagerly into our bowls of beans looking for bits of salt pork, bacon or ham hock.
More than half a century later, I can proudly say that at least some of Dad’s specialties found a home in my own family supper routine. Tacos, of course, top the list. I cannot, however, say I have been able to use as much fat in the pan to fry those tortillas into crispy shells as did my Dad. As a matter of fact, I mostly use pan spray or just a drop of oil when warming up a tortilla these days.
Breakfast for dinner has also been featured at my table. Some say you can never have too much bacon, but reality is that bacon for two adults and one child does not make the amount of grease necessary for splatter fried eggs. I don’t think I could do my eggs that way nowadays, even if there were enough bacon grease to do so. That much grease needs to be left in pleasant memories of childhood.
Finally, what happened to that trusty iron skillet? Well, we had two of them and I took one with me when I left home for college. It is still in use in my kitchen today. I feel the weight of family history when I pick it up and can almost smell the aromas of all those meals every time I use it.
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