Like Father Like Son
For more than 20 years, my dad, Howard Johnson, owned a very popular restaurant on the Upper Westside of Manhattan called the Cellar. The Cellar was a special place and at the time of its inception in 1973, there were very few, if any, black-owned restaurants outside of Harlem below 110th street. Ironically, my father bought the Cellar from another Black man, who owned it for a few years but decided to sell after having lost his appetite for the place. Despite its location in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, the clientele had become “too Black” for him.
In the early ’70s, my father was working for Paul Stewart a well-known men’s clothing store and hanging out at some of the popular watering holes of the day, Vic and Terry’s, Jocks and Teachers, among others. Those that knew my dad would be quick to agree he had great taste, and a certain social prowess, easily mixing in any group. This combination made him a natural for his new venture as a restaurateur.
To say my father was a risk taker would be accurate, both in his private life—he married my mother Phyllis Martha Notarangelo, an Italian woman, when interracial marriage was still illegal in most states—and in business, where he jumped head first into an industry that other than a fondness for Jack Daniels, he had no experience in.
My Father, The Paradox
I met my father when he was fifty, I was a newborn and he was in the twilight of his life. He attached like a lion protecting his fold and he never let go in a tender and loving way. My dad was a paradox. He migrated from Albania at the young age of 5 with nothing to carry because they had nothing and anything was an improvement: simply arithmetic. James Anthony Athanus was a force to be reckoned with, he knew who he was and he knew what he wanted out of life. You either loved him or not, but if you didn’t embrace him believe me it was a fatal judgment call on your part.
My Father was all of 5’8” but he ‘operated’ like he was 6’4” with all the trimmings. Charismatic, handsome, impeccably dressed, full of common sense, fine manners and always right - oops, did I say that? Well that has taken a while to admit it slipped out and I fear his wrath if I delete it.
He was a delight and he was MY dad. Older and a whole lot wiser than all my friend’s fathers and he was a true hedonist of the old-fashioned kind. No, not a Diamond Jim Brady but he knew good food and critiqued a dish until it was ‘proper’.
So, the unanswered question still - how did a five year old migrating from Albania who struggled to find food since birth, which continued for a few more years in America, be SO discerning? Don’t look at me, I still haven’t any answers but he has my respect and admiration after all these years. I still don’t understand him - he was a royal maybe not in this life but definitely in his last one.
Daddy's Little Girl
People would stare as we walked down the street. Not because he was famous but because he was different. He walked with a cane and a brace, tilting from side to side with each stride. Somehow he stayed upright. If someone stared too long, he might yell, “Whad’ya lookin’ at? It’s nothin’, it’s polio, I got it when it first came out!” Anyone else yelling at a stranger might come off as aggressive — he had a REALLY loud mouth — but Duke said it with a twinkle in his eye that set the person instantly at ease. It might even turn into a too-long stop-and-chat, but I was used to those.
I’d look up at him with pride and ownership. He was my daddy. Mine being the operative word. My mother told me the story many times. As a tiny preverbal baby, I had my arms thrown around my father’s neck, holding him as tight as I could, looking back at her with eyes that said, “He’s MINE.” As in, not hers. Her interpretation. Well, it was true.
Sometimes in late August or early September we’d go shopping for back-to-school clothes at Hank DeGoniff’s house. Hank’s “house” was a warehouse in seedy Hollywood. And unbeknownst to me at the time, DeGoniff wasn’t his family name. I wasn’t sure why Hank had clothes and winter coats for me along with lots of electronic equipment. But cash was handed over and I’d walk away with some new clothes. There wasn’t even a lot to choose from, but I wasn’t an overindulged child, so I was happy with what I got. I was in my twenties (maybe thirties) before I learned that Hank’s merchandise “fell of the back of a truck,” and goniff was Yiddish for thief.
Father's Day Celebrations
Since Father's Day coincides with the start of summer, grilling is the best way to celebrate male parenting.
For me, nothing is better than a platter of grilled Italian sausages with sautéed onions, deveined shrimp seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and black pepper, corn on the cob, charred red peppers mixed with capers and garlic and lobsters split open and doused with pats of sweet butter. With a tossed arugula and carrot salad, a loaf of freshly baked bread and a fresh fruit salad and I am happy.
When the boys come to the house to celebrate a birthday, mother's day or father's day, they frequently take command of the grill. As my younger son, Michael, reminds me, they are my sons so of course they are good cooks. And that makes me very very happy.
Our other son, Franklin, doesn't regard a meal a proper meal unless there are appetizers. So to add to the celebration, I offer three of my favorites. They are all easy-to-make. The tapenade and lavash crisps can be made a day or two ahead. The grilled corn salsa is best made fresh.
All three are addictive so you may find you'll be eating them all summer long.
The Secret Chef
Some men BBQ ribs. Others grill hearty steaks or shrimp with an array of specialty South American hot sauces. My dad, however, does not. He holds myriad talents, but cooking is not one of them. Or, so I was led to believe.
Since I was old enough to ask for dinner, my dad has continually told my brother and me that he can’t cook. "Lizzie!" he'd yell to my mom, "Quick! The kids need some food!" His panic palpable and contagious. Before long, we’d all be yelling for our mom’s swift and seemingly effortless intervention. Initially, she tried to tell him to make it himself, but each time he would make it so poorly - too much butter, too little jam, toast with too burned edges - that we decided we would never ask him to make anything again. Even the simplest jobs would go awry. "Oops!" he'd exclaim with questionable enthusiasm from the kitchen. "I've charcoaled the popcorn again!"
Realizing his efforts would cause more cleanup than help, my generous mom (who admittedly loves to pamper those whom she loves) began a routine of breakfast in bed that she’d never be able to get out of. Once my mom spoils you, there’s no going back. “Lizzie!” he’d call out from their room, desperate for more attention. It became an addiction, this attention. It was like crack. “WMC?”
We came to understand “WMC” to be an acronym for “Where’s my coffee?”
Father's Day Picnic Extravaganza
My Father's Favorite Omelette
When I was nine years old, my parents told me it would be fun if I made them breakfast in bed every Sunday. I was such a geek, I didn't know they were pulling a Tom Sawyer on me.
At first I practiced with something easy--scrambled eggs. I worked up to over-easy eggs and was very proud when I could plate the eggs without breaking or overcooking the yolk. My sister, Barbara, didn't like to cook. She could be coaxed into helping me with some of the prep, but she wasn't happy about it.
In time my mother felt I was ready to take on the El Dorado of breakfasts: an omelet. The first time I had one, I thought it was so great. The outer crispness contrasted with the custard-softness on the inside.
My mom taught me to use a big pat of butter to prevent the omelet from sticking to the pan. She made savory fillings, using a tasty piece of sausage, some mushrooms, spinach, and a bit of cheese. At times she'd switch gears and put something sweet inside, like fresh strawberries she'd cooked down into a compote.
For Father's Day one year she showed me how to make my dad's favorite filling: crisp bacon, sauteed potatoes, and cheddar cheese. Because he had an Eastern European sweet tooth, he liked his bacon dusted with sugar.
We Celebrate You with Cubans, Dad
When I think of my dad -- and if you know me, you know I always do think of him – it’s often Saturday morning and Duke is surrounded by his “crew” in his regular booth at Nate n’ Al’s. But next Sunday, Father’s Day, I’ll think of Duke as he was most Sundays – in his other regular booth at Matteo’s. What can I say, he liked to eat and he loved to schmooze.
I realize I write WAY too much about my dad. But, here is a story you haven’t heard. One night at Matty’s, as we called this trapped-in-a-time-warp, Rat Pack era, Italian bistro on Westwood Boulevard, my dad was eating in his regular red leather booth; first to the right as you walked into the “correct” (celebrity-filled) room.
I should mention that Sunday nights at Matteo’s was tradition among a certain show business crowd. It wasn’t unusual to see Sinatra dining with Steve & Eydie, or the Reagans, or even Clint Eastwood… but to me, Sunday at Matteo’s was mostly about the comedians.
On this night, Red Buttons walked in. My dad was always the first person anyone greeted. He was hard to miss. Short of stature, but big of mouth, and loudly holding court at a spot you had to pass to enter. Except for Shecky, my father called all comics he knew by their last name. It was just Dangerfield. Or Youngman. You get it.
12 Father’s Day Lessons About Live Fire Cooking to Live By
In many families, grilling and barbecue are rites of passage. Son or daughter reaches the age when he or she can handle fire without disaster. Dad passes the tongs and secret family recipes and a new barbecue generation is born.
Well that’s how it works in theory, although in my family, my mother did the grilling and my father kept strangely silent on the subject.
So in honor of Father’s Day, I asked three barbecue masters what their fathers taught them about barbecuing and grilling. Whether you’re teaching or learning this year, Happy Father’s Day! You’ve earned it.
Bourbon for Father's Day
Even though my father doesn't drink it, bourbon just seems like the quintessential spirit for dad. In my visit to bourbon country, I learned the distilleries were all pretty much family ventures, though now mostly owned by conglomerates. Even if you don't drink bourbon, a visit to this beautiful part of the country outside Louisville is a treat.
I was a guest at the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto which feels more like a national park than anything else. Historic wooden buildings with touches of their trademark red are set against a lush green backdrop. The tour of the distillery is very worthwhile. It's so old fashioned and small scale you might be surprised, I loved seeing the buckets of yeast and beautiful copper distillation pots.
Maker's Mark is made from corn, barley and local wheat. It is smooth and has featured prominently in my recipe development efforts. It has a sweetness and rich caramel and toffee notes with a hint of citrus.
If you like Marker's Mark, try 46, which is also made from Maker's Mark, but is aged with more specially charred oak staves, it's a bit higher proof but still mellow and has more spice and vanilla to it.