Dad could flavor a bean so well you’d think it came packaged that way. It didn’t matter what kind of bean – northern, kidney, pinto or lima – by the time they had been soaked, simmered for hours and seasoned, the bean flavor cozied onto your taste buds like your favorite blanket – perfect. So I had to make sure that my first attempt for this meal wouldn’t be anything less.
It was Thanksgiving 2002 and my family and I didn’t know it at the time but this would be the last Thanksgiving Dad would spend with us. As usual we were all there with Dad: my mother, my sister and her daughter, myself and my three daughters. There was never a question about where we’d celebrate the holiday or who would do the cooking. We spent it with my parents, all of us, no matter what.
This year had to be special though, because Dad, who always cooked Thanksgiving dinner; who broke the woman-in-the-kitchen rule and reigned as the primary cook for all holiday meals and daily meals as well, wasn’t cooking this year.
This year it was my turn. I’d been watching Dad cook for years. He was an expert at “doctoring up” a dish (his words) and along the way he had instructed me with direct or indirect lessons. I wanted to do this for him – not just because he was physically unable to do it this year. But because I wanted to show him that I had been paying attention; and that by mirroring his way, I was proud of him.
My skin still chills from the jitters I had that day with all its firsts. It was my first Thanksgiving meal; the first time Dad wasn’t strong enough to cook himself; and Dad’s first trip home since the operation.
A couple of months before, Dad’s right leg below the knee had been amputated and he was now living in a nursing home for rehabilitation until he could learn to walk again with the help of a fitted prosthesis.
For this day, we’d picked him up from the nursing home in a wheelchair and he’d be with us until nightfall. I wanted him to enjoy this meal. So, my mind was spinning hoping that my two biggest cooking challenges, the greens and my trial run for the black bean and rice recipe, worked out alright.
But as fate would have it, my cooking day started out wrong. I had gone over all that I needed in my head and written down my lists, but last minute runs to the stores, and a chaotic household set me back in my preparation time. The first issue was the greens. Dad had always bought fresh greens, cleaned and picked them, and let them simmer on the stove for hours – seasoned with neckbones, or turkey necks. But I ran out of time, so I was forced to substitute fresh greens for canned Glory greens. They tasted good, but then why wouldn’t they? Some company had prepared them. I wanted to impress Dad with something that I created from scratch. So, since the greens fell through, I focused on the black bean and rice recipe.
But, not thinking that soaking would improve their tenderness and flavor, I had neglected to soak them the night before. As a matter of fact, I should have prepared the whole dish a day ahead of time. But at the time I wasn’t too concerned. I was cooking them in Dad’s pressure cooker; and I thought that its sealed construction would correct my culinary faux pax and Dad would be pleased.
I filled the pot with water, added the rinsed beans, seasonings and sealed the lid.
Meanwhile, wanting Dad home so badly, none of us had thought through the stairs in my parents’ home and what we would need to help Dad with when he had to go to the bathroom. The wheelchair wouldn’t make it up the three steps from the recreation room to the bathroom; and I don’t recall us bringing his crutches.
But for now, dinner was the focus. We needed to keep things moving. Dad was a diabetic and when his stomach said eat, that’s what he needed to do. We got all of the other dishes ready and set the table. I’d tested the beans but they hadn’t had enough time. There wasn’t much else to do to take the focus off waiting for the beans. Our family never played any games together, or watched the football games. There was no core family bond to do anything special at Thanksgiving but eat and talk. So for a few more minutes, we just kind of joked around and waited for the beans until finally Dad had to eat.
I spoon-fed myself a few mouthfuls of black beans, flavored with the perfect blend of chicken bouillion, garlic, chili sauce and pepper; and soft – in most places. My heart sank as my teeth bit down on chewy pieces of beans that hadn’t finished cooking yet. What was I going to do? I tried to stall, hoping for a bit more cooking time, but it was of no use. I stirred and stirred hoping that the helping Dad got would be perfect. But …
…he found some too. I watched him as he just picked them out and kept eating. I held my breath and hoped that he wouldn’t find any more. But he kept finding partially cooked beans and even though he tried to mask his face, I felt like those partially cooked beans ruined his eating moment. He ate and enjoyed everything else, even the cranberry salad that he’d taught me to make from scratch, but left the remainder of the black bean and rice dish on his plate.
I didn’t let him see me crying in the kitchen. He tried to make it better by saying the beans had good flavor but I still felt like I let him down.
Then shortly after, I felt like we all let him down. He had to go to the bathroom. He couldn’t get up the steps to the bathroom on his own and his pride wouldn’t let us help him, or see the diaper that the nursing staff had put on him for his outing.
So, he instructed us to take him back to the nursing home. He cut his visit and our Thanksgiving celebration short because he didn’t want to be a burden. Once again, I kept my disappointment to myself.
With everything that went wrong, this is the Thanksgiving that lingers in my mind as the most memorable – because it was the one that changed the dynamics of our family tradition. From that point on, there was always somebody missing.
Dad died in April 2003. Before he left that Thanksgiving day, he gave me an early Christmas present: a food processor, which was for me the ultimate compliment. Despite the bean fiasco, I felt like it was his way of complimenting my cooking skills. He knew that the food processor wouldn’t collect dust in my cupboard.
I still have it – and use it regularly.
Since Dad can’t be here physically, I’ve brought his cooking influence to every Thanksgiving meal since his last one. I’ve learned to invest the time needed to prepare beans much better since then. They’ll never taste as good as his but at times I feel him smiling.