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Daddy’s Spaghetti!

We children whispered among ourselves in conspiratorial tones as soon as we got the first whiff of garlic, hoping against hope that Daddy was making a pot of spaghetti. We debated back and forth like Rabbinical scholars our interpretation of the sounds and aromas coming from the kitchen. It would be an understatement to say that my father’s spaghetti was known far and wide, and even today is among the best I have tasted ever. His sudden decision to make a pot of spaghetti was a rare treat, one he didn’t give often. We were never quite sure of what he was cooking until one of us would volunteer to do reconnaissance and pass nonchalantly through the kitchen for a glass of water. Every detail was carefully noted and reported back.

My father, when he chose to cook, always stood before the stove in my mother’s ruffled apron. He was silent, and we knew that when he cooked he was not to be disturbed. He would always pay careful attention to detail in everything he did, sometimes missing the obvious big picture because of it. He meticulously chopped onions while sautéing finely minced garlic and other flavorful spices. I recall once observing him peel a tomato which took several minutes, resulting in an endlessly long, almost transparent, ribbon of pink.

The sudden aroma and loud crackle of fresh garlic and onions meeting hot oil in his oversized skillet gave us some assurance that our favorite meal might become a reality. My father would throw the minced and chopped ingredients into the skillet with rich embellishment, his arms uncharacteristically in the air like a symphony conductor. He was in his full essence, not to be disturbed with questions from the minions. He never acknowledged our presence when we would find ourselves on the mission to spy and gather evidence in the kitchen. In retrospect, his mind must have been miles away, someplace he dreamed of but would never tell anyone, even himself. Cooking spaghetti was his way of acknowledging the deeper side of recognizing the other of himself.  And he did it well.  

We gathered intelligence as we saw how he stood before the stove meticulously controlling the readiness for the next blending of ingredients, coaxing flavors to arise. He concentrated, focused, as his special sauce bubbled and the hot steam from a huge boiling pot rose before his unflinching face, fogging his glasses. He was practicing what he had always told us, you can’t cook and be afraid of getting burned.

 In spite of the smells and sounds, we anxious children were never assured it would be spaghetti, it could take a sudden turn near the end and become succotash! It was never announced, it just happened. But when we saw the long spaghetti in the crinkly package resting innocently on the counter, we knew, it was “Bingo! Bingo! Bingo!” In quiet wild antics that only children can do when they know adults have no idea they are aware of their every move and don’t wish to be disturbed, we danced around jubilantly and smackingly, and most importantly, quietly.

When we were teens, our friends would come over uninvited because they had gotten whiffs of the sauce as they passed by in the neighborhood. “Mr. Watkins was…. cooking spaghetti” was the area teen clarion call.  Our best friend, Barbara, who lived around the corner, was always assumed invited, but the others just showed up.

When I was in my fifties, my father came to visit me and told the story about a pot of spaghetti he cooked that I remembered clearly but didn’t interrupt him in telling the tale because I wanted to hear his version from this normally unrevealing man. He recounted the story about the time he fixed a pot of spaghetti with an added twist. My sister was about twelve and I was ten when he awoke one Saturday morning inspired to add jalapeno peppers to his spaghetti recipe. This was in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the 1950’s, and the black experience with jalapeno peppers was quite limited. But being the somewhat black renaissance man of his limited community, he decided to add them to his already fabulous recipe. We had not been forewarned of his latest culinary adventure.

We gathered at the dinner table and, after the blessing and other appropriate amenities, we tackled the spaghetti with eager anticipation validated by the many years tried and true. As soon as I took the first bite, I was repelled by the unfamiliar and painful sting on my young uninitiated tongue and throat. Tears filled my eyes. We children had been disciplined long ago to eat what was in front of us. Our parents were from the Great Depression and wasting food was forbidden. One of my father’s favorite sayings at the dinner table was, “…duck or no dinner!” In other words, eat it, this is all you’ll get. He came from the harshest of the depression years.  We somehow finished our meal after picking through the peppers and left without complaint but with deep disappointment and, another never to be forgotten a sense of betrayal. Needless to say, we did not ask for seconds.

When my father relived this story, he was well into his eighties. He told me that when he made the spaghetti with the jalapenos, our reaction caused him to feel remorse, guilt and sorry for what he had done. As far back as I can remember, with everything that had happened in our lives, this was the only time I can remember him expressing sorrow for anything he had done to anyone!

My father cooked his famous spaghetti almost until the day he died, which was when he was in his nineties, and he never cooked spaghetti with jalapenos again.  To us, he would always be the person you would try to love and trust—but he would always slip some jalapenos into your life. He served it, and life went on…