We're off to Marlton, NJ, this morning (without Freddy & Willy, who will be breaking in a new dog-sitter) to attend a 70th-birthday party for my dad.
*Honor thy father and thy mother. I hope my Dad is impressed that something stuck with me from all those years in parochial school and Sunday school and church and youth group and church camp and home devotions. Actually, Dad, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I had to Google this.
My Dad (all those years of forced Sunday school attendance aside) has always been very supportive of everything I've done. (Well, almost everything, but that's another blog.) And he's one of my staunchest fans, having attended more performances of mine than probably anyone else on Earth, including one new-music concert I did in college which probably perplexed him greatly, along with every other non-pot-smoking member of the audience. (In this concert, I recall in various "pieces" bowing a piano with fishing line, howling, and playing my clarinet mouthpiece without the clarinet attached to it. Even I wouldn't sit through that concert. Thanks, Dad!)
Dad is also a huge fan of my cooking. That did not come out well. Dad is also a devoted fan of my cooking. At least since I've moved on from my adolescent attempts like pizza soup, which was the culinary equivalent of blowing a clarinet mouthpiece for 13 minutes. Dad is the perfect person to cook for. He will gamely try anything no matter how exotic, he is generous with his praise, and, absolutely best of all, he always takes care of clean-up after the meal. Have I ever done a dish at my parents' house? I can't think of a single time. So, yes, I enjoy cooking for my father.
Except that I always have to brace myself for that inevitable query as to the name of the dish I've created. I'm pretty sure that Dad knows that these questions get my goat, and that he enjoys that. And I steadfastly refuse to name my dishes — like any true artist who knows that authentic art cannot be pinned down with a name — which I'm sure gets Dad's goat. Through this puerile decades-long conflict, we have ensured that most of the goats in the Hanko household have been thoroughly gotten.
I'm not all that clear on what Dad expects a food name to convey, but the whole idea of naming dishes seems to me to come from a bygone era. In previous centuries, special foods were given names that commemorated people, described styles of preparation, or honored the locality where the dish was invented.
Singing divas were among the most celebrated personalities of the Bel Canto era, and we still refer to Peach Melba, named after the great Australian soprano Nellie Melba, and Chicken Tetrazzini, named for one of her Italian counterparts, Luisa Tetrazzini. But the names of modern divas somehow don't lend themselves as euphoniously to eponymous foods. "Here, Dad, try a Beyoncé Burger." or "Well, Dad, I mashed up a charred eggplant into Gaga-ganoush." It just sounds weird.
Many traditional foods are named after the groups that ate them. It seems hunters in various cultures had a distinctive way of preparing their food, for we have Jägerschnitzel, Chicken Cacciatore, and Chasseur Sauce. But in days of yore, you probably had to be a hunter or at least know one to have access to certain ingredients like mushrooms. Nowadays, we all can just run to Whole Foods for whatever we need. Whether we teach, put out fires, try cases, or sew sequins onto ball gowns, we can all avail ourselves of the same mushrooms, tilapia, and orzo. So, Dad, it wouldn't add any information for me to call last night's meal Voice Teacher Sausage Stew with a side of Slaw alla Army Brat.
Historically, many localities have lent their names to food. We have Belgian Waffles and French Fries stereotyping the eating habits of entire nations. Cities like Milan (Veal Milanese) and Newburgh (Lobster Newburgh) have become more or less permanently associated with certain foods. Even buildings have been honored in this way — Waldorf Salad was named for the hotel (I'm guessing) and all the best recipes in the Joy of Cooking have been designated "Cockaigne" after the house in which author Irma Rombauer lived and cooked. So, Dad, I guess you could, depending on where I did the cooking, refer to my Penn South Gnocchi or my Sauteed Spinach Kings Grant.
I'm realizing that certain popular foods have been named because they are made over and over again and people need a way of referring to them easily. "Eggplant Parmesan" rolls off the tongue so much more easily than "breaded strips of eggplant, lightly fried, and served covered in melted cheese and tomato sauce." But, given the way I cook, which is usually to throw together whatever I find on hand, I am unlikely to serve the same dish twice, much less over and over again. So a name becomes superfluous and even cumbersome: would you wish to learn the names of everyone you passed in Grand Central Station on your way to the train?
Anyway, Dad, because you are such a great guy to cook for, I'm going to grant you a special birthday honor. For the whole next year, you are invited to name any of my dishes. You may draw on names of singers you idolize, occupational titles, place names, or any other sources you wish.
Just please don't ask me that dreaded question. We're running out of goats to get.
Love you! Happy Birthday!