I didn’t abandon you or my Soul Food Tour of Japan. One of the greatest paradoxes of life is that death is part of life. Tomorrow is promised to none of us. My dad, Robert Flowers, passed away two weeks ago, but he left his family behind with more than funeral arrangements. He left us with memories, behaviors, and futures that we are still uncovering, and I invite you to unearth a couple of those with me
I’m back! I went to wish my father a final farewell. I don’t think these goodbyes are ever easy. It was made no easier by a 12 hour flight to the East Coast in the midst of all the stresses of travel (I’m still struggling to stay awake in light of the 14 hour time difference). I looked forward to returning to my family though, and the meals we’d share. One of the most fascinating things of travel today is that no matter how well I pack and prep for the flight, I find some sort of distraction, usually in the screen affixed to the headrest in front of me.
On the flight
I did do a bit of reading and writing, but I mostly listened to music and watched some movies. The most memorable was Mr. Church, starring Eddie Murphy as a personal chef. Considering current circumstances, it struck a chord. Mr. Church brought my dad back to life in his liveliness of spirit- his love of jazz, his joy of cooking and fearlessness (not to be confused with talent) on the dance floor as well as his less than pretty battles against temptation. The narrative tells the story of a cook who has been paid to work for a mother and child over the course of the doctors’ predicted six months the mother has left to live. He works with such joy, fueled by the jazz trickling from his radio. He relies on the recipe books stored on the shelves of his mind, between the memory and imagination sections; his only measuring tools are his hands and eyes. He becomes more than a cook. He becomes family. I take joy in the infectious passing of his legacy, the inspiration that he serves to Charlie, his young friend, to take up his rhythmic passion cooking, ensuring that his contribution isn’t in vain and that Mr. Church lives on.
As much as I can admire Mr. Church, and as much as he reminds me of my father, he was not my Dad. Dad wasn’t perfect (none of us are) but he was my dad. While I didn’t love his faults and struggles, I loved the man in spite of them. Dad was a person with a heart bigger than his ability to achieve that which it beat for. He was known mostly as “Rob the Barber”. It’s because of him that until recently, I could count on my hands the number of haircuts I’ve paid for. He was a hard working man, a man devoted to his customers with service that expressed his care and commitment to his craft. He lived to make others happy, strong enough to stretch a smile across anyone’s face. While he didn’t always know just what to say, he always had something to say.
I imagine the biggest smile I ever owed him arrived with a short-stack. I like to remember him for his ability to foster community around the table. One such occasion was the “Brooklyn Blackout” of 2003. Our kitchen was the only one on the Brooklyn block cranking out breakfast, and if you could smell the butter melting from 91st St., you were invited. The iconic menu was pan-sized pancakes- thick and fluffy, with its crispy, buttery brown edges that offer a lovely sweet and salty interplay with the syrup. At times, he would mix bananas into the batter (Not all my siblings were fans). Once there was room on the rim of the plate, you might consider scrambled eggs and brown’n’serve sausages. A messy pot of hot chocolate, Ovaltine, or milk tea sat on the stove- a pot as big as he could find with crispy teabag tags overhanging its sides and cans of sweetened condensed milk on its insides. On the counter beside it was the crusting mug he was using to serve it. It was Dad who brewed my first cup of coffee, right out of the measuring cup, with more milk and sugar than coffee.
Sometimes, when he really felt like it, he’d make fry jacks, the Belizean expression of fry bread, bakes, fried dimpling, lagos, or Johnny cakes- served with sliced cheese and or butter. On less elaborate mornings, it was a pack of Pilsbury Grands biscuits; Apply pressure at the seam and… P O P ! Mom liked’em with butter and syrup. His other go-to dishes were his turkey burgers, mixed in a blender, served heavy with mayo , cheese, iceberg lettuce and his barbecue chicken- fall off the bone, sometimes fall apart- eww– slow cooked with carrots, potatoes, onions.
(Then you had his late night snacks. You had his bed, feet up. to his right- his dresser…his cake, his apple pie, his shake and in front of him, the movie. He always fell asleep before the movie was finished and sometimes before the pie was gone. That was our chance to eat’em.)
These meals weren’t perfect but they carried the aroma, and emotion of Dad. These were his Sunday meals, holiday meals, or just “Dad’s home” meals. It’s been a while since he’s prepared any such meal, and it will be a while. I’ve known joy, and I’ve known sorrow. But until now, I didn’t know you could feel them at the same time. At dad’s funeral, it brought me joy to see the numbers impacted by my father’s life, many knowing him to be the same person: caring, kind, and loving; a barber, a family man, and a lover of movies and jazz, of pancakes, iced cakes, fried pies, ice creams and milkshakes- qualities for which he will always be missed.
In his loving memory,
and in the presence of many of his family, I determined to prepare a tribute breakfast. My attempt wasn’t exactly to replicate his breakfast but to joyfully remember and maybe relive times spent with him. I awoke the morning following his memorial service still in disbelief. What I was convinced of was hunger. I joined my niece at the table for a quick bowl of Cheerios before tackling breakfast. Down to the last of the o’s, I hopped to my feet and gathered my ingredients, bowls, and pans and queued up Kool and the Gang’s “Summer Madness”.
- Flour 6 C
- Baking powder 2 1/2 T
- Salt 1 T
- Sugar 3/4 C
- Eggs 6(Separated)
- Milk 4 1/2 C
- Vanilla 1 T
- Butter 1 C (Melted)
Flour was sifted and combined with the other dry ingredients. Egg whites beaten in a mixer till white and fluffy (soft peaks; if you beat them too long, you’ll have trouble incorporating it into the batter. But the air in whites help create airy, fluffy cakes). And the yolks were beaten and mixed with the other wet ingredients. I grabbed my pans and introduced them to the flames. I mixed the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, folding in the whites last. I threw a nub of butter in each of the pans. Sizzle! Then ladled on the batter. Through the batches, I wrestled with the flame trying to find the right temperature.
Never before, at least not in my latter days, had I been concerned with living up to Dad’s standard. I tried not to, but I longed to see something of him this day. We used to call dibs on his pancakes, because they would go straight from his pans to our plates leaving the others of us as onlookers awaiting the next batch. I had the oven on low, though, and was piling them in so we could sit to eat together. Just one more thing: bananas foster in memory of his banana pancakes (we’ll work on that one together some other time.)
The spread was set now. There were pancakes, bananas foster, scrambled eggs, sausage links, fry jacks (thanks to my aunt, Donaldine, also a chef), and a selection of hot drinks.
I looked over my multi-toned pancakes and Aunt D’s beautifully golden jacks- light, crisp, soft inside (I venture to say better than Dad’s). I listened to the playful jeers at my two-toned sausages. I reminded those at the table, “Dad was a lot of things, and perfect wasn’t one of them. Shut up and eat! Enjoy what ya can!”