My father is having a mild health scare; enlarged lymph nodes on his stomach. While he’s seeing a specialist on Monday for a deeper dive of the condition, the news has launched a thousand reactions from my family not to mention my father: depression, confusion, anger, fear, worry, promise.
My father is my rock and foundation. With this latest news, my worries and concerns have prompted private thoughts of a life without him. I’m not dwelling and obsessing here but I cannot deny their selfish existence. They are wrenching, often drilling me into deep introspection about relationships, love and emotional candor.
We’ve all mourned the loss of a significant other leaving or dying, burying a family member. Bluntly, people leave. People die. My father, at some point–hopefully not at any point soon–will die.
Dad and I have developed a deep closeness over the years. This was something missing from my childhood but as adults we’ve found our footing and it’s simply grand. I never understood him. He never understood me. That’s all changed. Rarely am I personally or emotionally certain about much but with my father, I am. We have both learned that it’s safe and appropriate to lean on each other during rough times. Achieving this is no small feat but there’s a certain completeness, a fullness, when sharing a mutual certainty with someone.
He’s been on my mind considerably this past week and I was thinking of our cooking adventures in Paris three years ago which he described as one of his favorite vacations. I wanted to post an essay I wrote three years ago about that experience which still captures the essence of that trip, the olives that he made and adored and the most extraordinary man in my life. Dad, I love you, deeply and profoundly.
by Joe Crea
We were minutes into a weeklong Paris cooking class, and already my father was picking up pieces of freshly cut lamb from the floor.
Given the task of cubing the sinewy, crimson meat, direct from a farm in Provence, and coating it with North African spices, my father was attempting to rub cumin, ginger, and cayenne pepper into the lamb when his prep bowl slipped. Half of the meat ended up on the kitchen floor of famed food journalist Patricia Wells, our instructor for the next five days.
It’s going to be a long week, I thought.
Dad is not much of a cook, but he could always make breakfast. Bacon and eggs were his Sunday morning specialty. He crisped the slices of bacon until they nearly crumbled with each bite. Then, with all the flair of a short-order cook, he cracked eggs into the swirling, speckled grease. The aromas of greasy eggs and bacon still take me back to childhood.
His cooking had not extended much beyond that. For years, I thought breakfast was all he could (or wanted to) make. Yet more recently he’s developed a greater interest in cuisine. Part of this passion stems from his late uncle, who for many years owned and operated an Italian restaurant in Cleveland.
A year ago my father asked me what I’d like for my 30th birthday. I told him I wanted to take a cooking class with him in Paris, taught by Madame Wells. Wells, who has lived in France since 1980, has been offering small, weeklong classes at her studio in Paris and at her estate in Provence for the past 10 years.
My father frowned. Not one for French food, he casually suggested we head to Bologna or Sicily and learn from “our people.” I admitted to some apprehension myself. Would he be at all interested in concocting complex demi-glaces or in gingerly wrestling buttery pastry dough?
“A disaster in the making,” declared my brother. “You should have gone to Italy.”
Despite the prophecies of doom, we went ahead with the trip. The first week of October, we arrived in Paris and headed to Wells’ small studio. It’s a cozy place, with a old French bistro clock hanging from the ceiling. Her tiny but well-equipped kitchen is crammed with gadgets and spices, including fresh vanilla beans in her sugar canister. “It just gives the sugar more flavor,” said Wells, a petite woman with short blonde hair. On the first day, she already had a pot of chicken stock on the stove, simmering to a deep golden brown.
As we inquired about the ingredients she used, Wells shared with us the secrets to a good stock: Don’t stir. Never let it reach a boil, as this makes the fat emulsify, leading to a cloudy mixture. Use a 10-quart pasta pot fitted with a colander to make straining the broth easy. And scorch the freshly cut onions (with the skins on) over a gas flame to give the broth a richer flavor. Then insert a clove into each onion half.
Our schedule was simple. Each day, six students would gather around her dining-room table, and Wells would assign us recipes. Then we’d head into the kitchen to prepare our lunch. She designed the daily menu inspired by morning trips to the markets – almond-stuffed dates sautéed in olive oil with fleur de sel and a chilled, marinated heirloom-tomato soup, for instance.
One salad in particular stands out in memory: blanched broccoli, crushed pistachios, fresh slices of avocado, lemon juice, and pistachio oil from Huilerie Leblanc & Fils, a stone mill in Burgundy that has produced artisanal oils since 1878. The contrast of greens made the salad instantly appealing (I wanted to copy those colors on the walls of my home). We devoured the dish in minutes.
In addition to cooking, we also shopped, repeatedly and voraciously. We visited cheese shops and bakeries with Wells as our guide, as well as heading to the Marché Président Wilson, a food market in the 16th arrondissement. The market, which is open only on Wednesdays and Saturdays until 2 p.m., is a food haven with seasonal produce and fresh cuts of meat and fish. In broken French, I asked one butcher why the French sell plucked, raw chickens with their feet and heads still attached. It maintains the freshness of the meat, he said. If the feet and head were removed, oxygen would permeate the flesh faster, hastening its spoilage.
With no breakfast in his stomach that day, my father approached a baker’s stand at the market and purchased a crusty baguette. He tore into the bread, passing half to me. Fresh, plump figs overflowing from a plastic green basket caught my eye. I dropped five euros on just seven figs, offering one to my father. When I pierced the purple skin with my teeth, the juicy pink innards dribbled down my chin. My father said they reminded him of the figs he would pick from his uncle’s tree when he was a kid.
Even with his initial dreams of making Italian delicacies, my father soon found happiness in preparing dishes such as seared duck breasts with Espelette pepper and arugula salad topped with freshly seared chanterelle mushrooms and Parmigiano. But pure heaven was watching Dad put together an olive marinade early in the week.
Every Saturday when I was growing up, he took my brother and me to the Italian markets in Cleveland to load up on thick wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano, paper-thin cuts of prosciutto, crusty bread, and (always) tubs of freshly cured olives. Now he was marinating olives in a combination of olive oil, red wine vinegar, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, garlic, and strips of lemon and orange rinds. We grazed on this combination all week long as we prepped our meals.
Watching him take the time to learn, carefully slicing the garlic into thin layers and asking me how to zest fruit, I was in awe. My father. The financial consultant. Republican. Reticent. Unable to ask for advice. Now in need of his son’s help. I grabbed the zester and orange and demonstrated. Soon enough, he was grating long slices of springy zest, perfuming the air and shooting me a Jack Nicholson smirk. I can’t remember having seven minutes of his attention growing up. I now had seven days. We were happy.
Chanteduc Rainbow Olive Collection
Camaieu d’Olives de Chanteduc
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup best quality red wine vinegar
30 fresh bay leaves
Wide strips of rind of 2 lemons or 2 oranges, preferably organic
5 whole, plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled, green germ removed, thinly sliced
1 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
4 cups mixed olives, preferably a mix of French brine-cured black olives, green picholine in fennel, green pimento-stuffed olives, and tiny black Nicoise olives.
In a large saucepan, combine the oil, vinegar, bay leaves and garlic. Heat over low heat just until warm. Remove from the heat and add the lemon or orange rinds and the pepper flakes. Add the olives and toss to coast them with the liquid. Transfer to a large, airtight container. Refrigerate–shaking the container regularly to redistribute the liquid–for at least 2 hours and up to 2 weeks.