Dead Dad Day, 16 Years On

August 6th was the sixteenth anniversary of my father’s death, a day I have turned into a holiday of sorts in my house. This is, in fact, the spine of the memoir, and it has its own essay chapter (maybe destined to be an introduction or the concluding chapter; I’m not sure yet) devoted to it. The idea is simple: I cook elaborate meals I imagine my father would have loved on Dead Dad Day, drink good wine, and toast his memory. I want, as I have said in the essay, to be fully in my body on the day my father’s body quit.

My father loved food, loved to try new things just for the sake of newness, loved to show off his gourmand tastes (and his baser ones, too–I won’t forget those) to anyone willing to let him lead them through a menu or a cookbook. I was always one of those people, and since he died, I’ve been rather careful in cultivating my own foodie-persona. But it’s more than that, obviously. My love of cooking and eating is, as I have said, a primal way I can still feel connected to him.

This year, I postponed the BIG meal for a day so one of my dear friends could join us, but on DDD itself I took my three-year-old son to the grocery and asked him to help me pick something “edible, random and odd.” He has no idea what’s going on yet–doesn’t even understand that his grandfather was ever more than a picture on the wall–but he’s forever game in the grocery store. We ended up near the tropical fruits and he ended up picking out a Horned Melon, which is an African fruit also called a Kiwano. The label on ours told me they are also grown in California.

Rudy and I got a kick out of the look of the thing–so dramatic and a little scary!– and he particularly liked the spiky horns. They’re quite hard, actually, making it trickier than one might think to handle. The rind felt yielding, somehow reminiscent of kiwi (not related, despite the similarity in the name) but smooth. I hoped I was choosing a ripe sample and was intrigued to read on the label that I could expect the fruit to taste like a cross between banana and cucumber. At home I sliced it along the equator to find this shocking, stunning, beautiful surprise:

The green was intense–the picture hardly captures it–and the whole thing so sculptural. Or even painterly. I couldn’t wait to taste it. The seeds, I learned, are not the eating kind (though one website told me that if I wanted an “easier” way to eat a kiwano, the seeds were certainly edible if not particularly tasty.) and the proper way to enjoy this fruit (which is very often used decoratively–not hard to see why) is to pinch the  seed between your tongue and teeth and suck the gelatinous pulp around it through.

It did not take long for me to resort to the “easier” (read: lazier) method of simply eating the whole sac, seed and all. Not surprising–I eat pomegranates this way and sunflower seeds as well. I have no patience for micromanaging my food and find the seeds to be satisfyingly bitter and good to crunch.

But not this time. With the pomegranate, the beautiful red fruit is not just beautiful, it is also tart and sweet and sparkling and exuberant. It’s worth the effort of extraction. I found the magnificent green kiwano flesh to be tasteless at best. Like jellied water. Nothing of cucumber or banana here. And to be honest, the great mass of oozy pulp was less than appealing visually once you started poking at it.

Eh bien. This is how Dead Dad Day works, after all. I take a risk and see what happens. No regrets to date. Rudy though, thought the whole thing was very cool and ate a good amount of the fruit by himself. Novelty thy name is toddler.

The whole episode reminded me of the time my father and I visited the newly opened, shiny clean D’Agostino’s market in Brewster, NY. It was a gorgeous grocery with a huge produce section rife with all kind of “exotic” items. I remember that we wandered around the place in a reverent silence that would have been fit for church. I didn’t know until we got home that he had swiped a buck from the collection plate: a bright yellow star fruit plucked from the depths of his pocket and placed onto the cutting board in our kitchen.

I was horrified privately but also more than a little thrilled. He sliced it and we ate the stolen fruit standing there in fluorescence in front of the kitchen sink. His first star fruit and a first taste of discovery–both culinary and fatherly–for me.

It was much more than sweet.

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