The Secret Chef

fathersday-kipner-shhSome 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?”

Upon hearing this, my brother and I would climb into the bed with him and shout in unison, “WMC! WMC!” All of us just eager chicks in a nest, hoping for the first worm. I became accustomed to this WMC ritual, as was my father. Why make anything ourselves when mom could make it so much better?

Then something happened. I was about 15 years old, and we had all just returned from visiting family in England. We came back terribly exhausted as one is after a long flight. Jetlag was not my friend and it kept me tossing and turning despite being in dire need of a good night’s sleep. Around 3AM, I couldn’t take it any longer and so I decided to go to the kitchen to fix myself a midnight snack. The floorboards creaked as I tiptoed around an utterly silent house.

When I turned the corner at the top of the stairs, I saw a tiny light emanating from the kitchen. As I got closer, I saw my dad basically sitting on a mountain of snack heaven. It was the greatest picnic spread I had ever seen. But wait? Mom was asleep. Who made these delicious things?

Perfectly buttered rye toast with a layer of Vegemite abounded (my dad’s Australian), topped with delicately sliced avocado and a generous sprinkling of coarse sea salt and pepper. There were a variety of beverages: tea, guava and freshly squeezed orange juice. Bowls of crudités and hummus with rolled turkey slices, and a chive and bacon omelet that would impress even Jamie Oliver. I was in complete disbelief at the gourmet spread I witnessed before me, all at the doing of my father who has, for so many years, convinced us all of his culinary ineptitude.

“But dad!” I said with hushed excitement so as not to wake my mom or brother. “You can’t cook?” He gestured for me to sit down, to prepare me for his confession; then he leaned in to whisper. “Here’s the thing,” he began. “I can cook. I cooked for years all by myself before I met your mom. But she’s such an excellent cook that I only want to eat food the way she makes it. It’s perfect the way it is. If she finds out that I can cook, then I’ll have no excuse. I’ll have to start cooking all the time.” He stops to take a breath. “Promise me you won’t tell?”

fathersday-slit-kipnerI nodded my head compliantly, because even though I felt like my mom was getting the short end of the stick, it was a secret between my dad and me. And what a treasure that was. We shook hands, cementing the pact, and dug in. I’m not sure why, but it was one of the best tasting meals I’ve ever had.

The next morning, when all the family was in the kitchen, my brother asked my dad for some toast. Even though he knew my dad wouldn’t make it, I think he was always hoping for a turnaround.

"He's useless!" my mom cried, pushing him out of the way to do it. While her back was turned, buttering, my dad looked at me and quietly put his finger to his mouth. "Shhhh," he whispered. He shook his head and pretended to slit his throat with his index finger to indicate the severity of my punishment should I let my mother on to our secret.  

To this day, or until my mom reads this, she has no idea what a good cook he is. Every now and then, my dad brings a cup of coffee to her in bed, and tells us all what a good guy he is to do so. We all agree, because he is, after all, a really, really good guy. And even though he’s so terrible at making coffee, my mom thinks it’s a cute gesture. “At least he’s trying,” she says to us, beaming.


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