A Daughter’s Memories of a Beloved Father’s Food

Dear Readers:

In my last post I asked you to share a favorite family food memory. I received this response from new friend and frequent Lettuce Eat Kale commenter Julie Cleeland Nicholls, a fellow Australian living in Singapore. I met Julie through my oldest friend in the whole wide world Jane Rogers, who was wise enough to say yes when I asked her whether she wanted to be my best mate in second grade.

Julie wrote this homage to her father and his food on the second anniversary of his death. I’m sure you’ll agree it is a lovely remembrance of a man and his meals.

It is an honor and a pleasure to publish it here as the very first guest post on Lettuce Eat Kale.

I’ve retained the Australian spellings in Julie’s prose. A couple of cultural references explained: A magpie, for those who may not know, is a noisy black-and-white bird native to Oz.  Max Brenner is an over-the-top chocolate shop originating Down Under.

Julie grew up in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Her father, Peter Robert Cleeland was an Australian Labour Party politician, a doting dad, and an awesome cook, an unusual feat for an Aussie bloke of his generation.

“I miss my Dad every single day,” Julie tells me. Read on to learn why.

Dad’s Kitchen Song

Special Guest Post by Julie Cleeland Nicholls

When I reach back for memories, I invariably remember food…It’s the food itself, the taste of things shared and, most often, the meals the dead used to prepare…Death has its particular relationship with food. It is, by its nature, symbolic and metaphysical. The dead are beyond succour and hospitality. We eat, and particularly drink, in remembrance.A. A. Gill

Dad never cooked for us when we were little; that was Mum’s province. From the vantage point of later years, after Dad revealed himself as a talented cook, this division of labour seems odd, because Mum disliked cooking.

After a hard day teaching, she’d hastily direct her children to assemble strange concoctions with some very borderline ingredients indeed. “Just cut that green bit off the chicken, Julie,” she’d say.  “It’ll be fine when it’s cooked.” Mum’s approach combined a breezy tendency to scoff at use-by dates, and bursts of desperate creativity, resulting in memorable dishes like her infamous sausage and curry casserole. I eat now at the dodgiest roadside stalls around the world without fear of illness and attribute this to my early food experiences at my mother’s hands.

When my Dad set up home for himself at a later stage in his life, he took to cooking, discovered he was good at it, and realized he liked it.  And he shared that discovery with me. Now some of the warmest memories I have of him are in the kitchen. The soundtrack to these memories is provided by Dad himself, singing loudly and with emphasis, “As I WANder along through the hills, MAG-gie, where once the roses BLOOMED.” He didn’t know any of the other lyrics, so he’d just repeat, pause, and then hum the rest of the tune while he chopped, sauteed and basted. We called it “Dad’s Kitchen Song” and it was always a harbinger that good things were on their way.

What would Dad cook?

  • Lush winter soups with a rusty silk wash of paprika and spices skimming the surface.
  • Sweet roast spring lamb with root vegetables: “I love parsnips; not everyone does. I don’t know why not. They’re so earthy. Here, Jule – smell this,” and he’d present a specimen he was peeling so I could share his pleasure in its good, raw scent.
  • Wonderfully fragrant Thai curries. He fussed about finding authentic ingredients, tracking down bitter little pea aubergines and grinding his own spices. He experimented with frozen, imported kaffir lime leaves before he and his wife Jan decided to grow their own. They tracked down a nursery in New South Wales that grew kaffir lime trees and on their next trip to Sydney to visit me, they spent the better part of a day driving to the outer Western Suburbs to buy a tree. Successfully transported back to Melbourne and nurtured it in a sheltered corner of their windy garden till the leaves were ready to harvest whenever they needed.
  • Dad’s Christmas specialty was a whole salmon poached with sliced lemons picked that morning from his garden tree, and big handfuls of dill, coriander, and any other fresh herbs that took his fancy. It was the centrepiece of the family lunch – enough to feed his and Jan’s blended families, their spouses, and growing numbers of grandchildren. The salmon was moist, cool and light on the days when it was a sunny celebration; and when the Melbourne Christmas weather turned grumpy and unseasonal, its slick and melting texture was a fine consolation for the spattering rain outside.  Dad would stand watchfully over the hooded barbeque, wine glass in hand, making sure the fish was cooking perfectly. At the same time, he managed to remain front  and centre of every passing conversation going on around him; the perfect example of a holiday multitasker.

For Dad, a meal wasn’t complete without a vigorous debate going on at the same time; words, food, wine, and ideas were the ingredients he most valued at a family feast.

On the first Christmas after his death, my husband Andrew agreed to supervise the salmon, following Dad’s bit-of-this-splash-of-that recipe as well as he could. The pressure was extreme, and Andrew admitted to some feelings of fishy inadequacy in the lead-up. But with advice, input, and cheerleading from the rest of the family the task was accomplished.

We ate the Christmas salmon as we’d always done – with just one great and terrible difference: The creator of the dish was missing from around the family table.

I learned respect for the ingredients that make up a meal from Dad. He loved markets, frequently shopping at Preston Market in the northern suburb of Melbourne, where he’d grown up. In addition to debating every green-grocer and deli owner who’d engage in repartee with him, he took deep delight in the smells, sounds, and sights of Melbourne at its most multicultural.

From the second-generation Australian shopkeepers selling Italian, Greek, and Turkish foods; to first-generation arrivals from India, Vietnam, Africa, and the Middle East, he’d talk about how wonderful it was to shop in a place where the cultures, languages and cuisines of the world came together to take part in the everyday yet transformative miracle of choosing, preparing, and serving good food.

The last meal I shared at my father’s table was not cooked by him. In the final days of his swift and fatal six-month illness he couldn’t walk and had increasing trouble moving his arms. He was sensitive and proud about not being able to eat with ease, so we carefully didn’t watch him as he painstakingly maneuvered the sushi that Andrew and I had brought over for lunch. With the meal, we opened bottle after bottle of red wine from his “cellar” – really just a converted corner of the laundry.

He joked that his goal was to finish every bottle before motor neurone disease had its inexorable way with him. That became one of the few life goals that Dad didn’t fulfill. We’re still drinking wine from his cellar two years later.

After the sushi, I opened a box of hand-made chocolates from Max Brenner to have with coffee. I’d included each of his favourite flavours, and was rewarded by his smile. He managed to eat a couple then, and I hope more after we left.

There’s a photo taken from that day, I’m standing behind my Dad’s chair with my arms around him after we finished our meal. I’m smiling too brightly, and Dad’s eyes are their usual beautiful, denim blue but his smile is tired. Even the simple act of sharing lunch had exhausted him. On the empty plate in front of Dad is a smear of soy from his sushi, and you can just see the corner of the chocolate box, still a quarter full.

For Dad, the art of selecting, cooking, and sharing food was an extension of his enthusiastic, generous, and big-hearted personality. As with everything he did, he expected acclaim and extravagant compliments to be showered on him as he presented his meals. But the results of his efforts were always shared with such hospitality and joy that this demand for approval was simply part of his incomparable charm.

The praise was always given to him, unstintingly, sincerely, and with love. I hope that made him as happy as his kitchen songs made us.

In memory of Peter Cleeland, May 31, 1938 – September 16, 2007

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24 Responses to “A Daughter’s Memories of a Beloved Father’s Food”

  1. Kris Says:

    What a beautiful and touching tribute. I just emailed my dad to remind him that I love him.

  2. Emma Says:

    This has left tears in my eyes, Julie. Both the words and sentiment are beautiful.

  3. Jane Grogan Says:

    Julie, a beautiful memory and tribute to your Dad. What a wonderful relationship you had and carry with you. You continue to amaze me!

    Thanks for taking me back to my own family in Australia for a moment!

  4. Jane Says:

    I know how special your Dad was to you Julie and this is a very moving and beautifully written tribute to him.

    I write this with tears also and feel very lucky and honoured to have yourself and Sarah as my friends.

  5. Antoinette Says:

    Julie, how beautiful is this tribute, so elegantly and vividly written, could only be from a love so deep. I’m so lucky to have met Peter too, xx

  6. Christine Says:

    So sweet and touching. Thank you so much for this lovely guest post.

  7. marthaandme Says:

    What a wonderful tribute. I understand how vivid food memories can be and have many of my grandmothers. I make their recipes and feel that they are still with me when I eat them.

  8. Nani Steele Says:

    A beautiful tribute to Julie’s father; thanks for sharing with us-I love how memory wraps around food and visa versa and what it brings up for others.
    I’m thinking now of my dad who died when I was in my early twenties–not a gourmand but someone who loved food none-the-less (in a healthy/ethnic kind of way), and lived with a French woman who was a pastry chef. Mostly what I think of is his Cowboy coffee (grinds and all), pan-fried steaks, and fresh grapefruit, peeled like an orange, that he often had in his car. And then there was always the Chinese restaurant he took me to in some back water street, or the refried beans at the Mexican restaurant on a shanty corner; he loved those “marginal” places, the ones teetering on the edge for all their authenticity.

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Nani, your father sounds like quite the character! And fond of food, too, in his own way, something he obviously passed on to his daughter.

      Maybe it’s why you’re especially intrigued by street eats; you got an early education in authentic food.

  9. Jennifer Margulis Says:

    THis is such a nice first guest post Sarah. I loved reading it but it also made me cry. I have so many fond memories of my dad, who always cooked, in the kitchen. I can’t bear thinking that one day he won’t be here. This post reminds me that it is so important to write things down so we don’t forget them. Thanks to both of you!

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Hi Jennifer, So glad it spoke to you. And you make a good point: I’m all for all of us recording our family stories.

  10. Melanie Haiken Says:

    I couldn’t read this post without crying, as my memories of my father are so incredibly similar, down to the late-life discovery of cooking talent, the singing, and the desire for enthusiastic acclaim. (In my dad’s case though it was show tunes from musicals like Guys and Dolls, belted at top volume. And he knew ALL the lyrics….) Our huge Jewish-cum-Italian-style family dinners at my dad’s home in Healdsburg (accompanied even by the Italian toast “a la familia!”) are among my most precious memories. Thanks Julie, for making us all pause and remember our beloved dads and all they gave us.

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Making everyone cry today, but tears of joy as well as sadness and loss, it sounds like. Love the images of your papa, here, Mel, he comes vividly to life.

  11. Almost Slowfood Says:

    Me too, Melanie! Me too. My father was a terrible cook until he finally discovered how fun and exciting it was. He’s my inspiration and the reason I love cooking so much. It’s nearly two years since I lost him.

    Beautiful beautiful guest post, Sarah

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      “He’s my inspiration and the reason I love cooking so much.” Such a lovely tribute to your father, Almost Slowfood.

  12. Susan Says:

    Aww, what a beautiful tribute to your father! I’m very sorry for your loss. My dad died in 2008 and one of the things I remember about him was how much he loved cinnamon. On almost anything! Once he even poured it into his orange juice and my Mom and I thought he might be losing it until I tried the orange and cinnamon concoction. It’s actually very tasty!

  13. JCN Says:

    Thank you all for your lovely comments on this tribute to my father. As all of you would understand, even if I wrote an entire book, it would still seem an inadequate way to express how much my father gave me … an appreciation of food and cooking is just one small part of it.

    Many of your comments and your own memories made me smile in recognition … like Nani, I too have many happy recollections of being taken by my father to out-of-the-way restaurants, or to experience food that was new or unusual in Australia during the 70s and 80s. All of us fortunate enough to have magnificent fathers, know how lucky we are!

  14. Donna Hull Says:

    What a beautifully written tribute to a father. Thanks for sharing this lovely guest post.

  15. Sheryl Says:

    Truly heartfelt and moving story. Food is so much more than just food when it’s cooked with enthusiasm, love and meaning.

  16. Rania Gerebtzoff Says:

    There are no words good enough to describe the impact of your beautiful writing, Julie.I am sure that your dad is watching you very proudly from up there!

    He has done a great job as a parent!

    We hardly ever pause for a moment and watch and listen to what a meal means. We take them for granted sometimes and days,months and years pass us by…

  17. Meredith Says:

    What a terrific topic and, like @Jennifer said, a nice way to start your guest posts!

  18. le Says:

    thanks for sharing, i enjoy it very much

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