Channeling Dad With Potatoes

On my Dad's lap at the age of 3. (Family photo)

I knew my father for 16 years. His life was cut way too short at the age of 37; in fact, my kid brother is now older than my father at the time of his death.

A lifetime -- 27 years -- has since passed, one of hopes and dreams both fulfilled and dashed, love lost and found, continents traveled, graduations, jobs, hurricanes, wars, a wedding and plenty of crumbs. I’ve carried on just fine, she says with a stiff upper lip, but inevitably at this time of year, when the rest of America salutes D-A-D with a tie or a new grill toy this Sunday, I get nostalgic for a man who’s been gone since the Reagan administration.

His name was John. He voted for Nixon. He liked to watch the cop show “Hill Street Blues.” His musical tastes ranged from the Village People to Pavarotti. He was a huge fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. And how he loved a hoagie.

In the kitchen, he’d make an occasional appearance, wowing us kids with chocolate milkshakes made with Breyer’s ice cream and French fries made from Idahos which he painstakingly hand cut before plunging into the hot oil.

The rest is blurry, a patchwork quilt of memories that keep me warm, even 27 years later. At times like this, I do wonder about the man he would have become had his heart kept ticking, whether his passion for hand-cut fries would have paved the way for deeper culinary study or what he’d think about my career in food.

For several years, I’ve secretly harbored a fantasy -- that he’d come back, just one for night, and have dinner with me. I could teach him a thing or two about wine, and we’d have wild salmon, something I’m fairly certain he never had the pleasure of tasting. There would be local spinach (a far cry from the creamed variety that my mother dumped on his head in the heat of an argument) and instead of those fries, we’d try something a little easier on the cholesterol, a batch of oven-roasted fries perfumed in garlic and rosemary.

And in case you’re reading, Dad, the kitchen door is always open.

Oven Fries
From “Burger Bar” by Hubert Keller with Penelope Wisner


2 pounds unpeeled red, waxy potatoes (Yukon golds or creamers would be equally lovely)
1 head garlic, separated into cloves, unpeeled
2-3 tablespoons duck or goose fat, melted, or extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt to taste
2 sprigs fresh rosemary

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Line a baking tray with aluminum foil, shiny side up, which helps prevent potatoes from sticking. Place tray in hot oven.

Cut potatoes into wedges about ¼ inch thick and place in a large mixing bowl. Add garlic, fat, salt and rosemary, and toss until potatoes are well coated.

Remove hot pan from oven and quickly transfer potatoes to pan, distributing evenly in a single layer. Immediately return pan to oven and lower heat to 450 degrees. Roast until almost fork tender about 30 minutes, and remove pan from oven. Shake pan to help loosen potatoes. Return pan to oven for an additional five minutes, or until fork tender.

Transfer potatoes and aromatics into a serving bowl. Discard rosemary sprigs. Taste for salt, and season as necessary.

Makes 4 servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 18, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Family
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Hi, Kim: My dad, too, died way too young at 53. I find it bizarre that I've now lived 3 years longer than he.

When my parents split amicably when my sister and I were 11 and 9, he realized that he had to learn to cook or live on frozen dinners.

And learn he did! When he tried a new recipe, he would do it to the letter. Next time he would experiment with it. He became a wonderful self-taught cook and far outdid his mother (my Irish nana, who was great with a story or song, was a disaster in the kitchen).

Sometimes I still miss him terribly, but he was great fun while we had him.

And Dad, if you're listening, my door is also open.

Posted by: jhershelredpuppy1 | June 18, 2009 8:06 AM

Thanks for helping me to remember to appreciate my dad. He's 77 and my mom is 70 and I forget sometimes how lucky I am. I had dinner with them last night and my dad gave me a jar of homemade vegetable soup to take home. Every time we eat his soup, my son and husband point out that I need to find out how he makes it, because it's fantastic. Of course, he doesn't use a recipe, he just learned by watching his mom. Now I will have to watch him, take notes, and hopefully figure it out.

Posted by: margaret6 | June 18, 2009 8:37 AM

Yes! I urge those out there who still can to take the time to figure out those cherished family recipies - my grandfather died in 2006 and we all lament personal favorite foods that went with him.

Posted by: Lizka | June 18, 2009 9:30 AM

You've just made me feel extra fortunate that I'll get to see my Dad this weekend. On a culinary note, Wow!, oven fries made with duck or goose fat. I'm bowled over by the idea, though it's nearly impossible for me to get a duck let alone a goose to cook. This idea will stay in my long-term memory waiting for the day my goose is cooked.

Posted by: esleigh | June 18, 2009 9:38 AM

Ah, but you're lucky to have had those 16 years! My dad was only 35 and I was 6. I have very few personal memories. Enough to know he'd have loved personal computers, though!

But I think I take with me his great sense of humor and an attitude of celebration for each birthday, rather than a dread of getting old. Old is better than dead. (I'm now 7 years older than he was.) I also made a point of getting my grandmother's recipes when I was in college, just in case. For one of her specialties, a pound cake-like fruitcake, I set up a time to cook it with her and take notes. She's now 89! (And she says I make her fruitcake even better than she did.) :-)

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | June 18, 2009 11:03 AM

I would really like that recipe for the pound cake-like fruitcake!

Posted by: davemarks | June 18, 2009 12:33 PM

My dad also died way too young. He was just starting to experience the joys of being a grandfather. It's those four grandchildren who have really missed out. This time of year is always hard - even after 17 years. Thanks for the wonderful column about your dad.

Posted by: GFReilly | June 18, 2009 1:05 PM

Kim...thanks for a great column. I remember your dad very well and think of him more than you might imagine. His fondness for hoagies seems a very familiar and happy memory too.

Will make note of this recipe and informally name it "Mr. O Fries" in the cookbook.

Posted by: jonathansegal | June 18, 2009 3:39 PM

Kim, it is refreshing to hear your voice in print. I enjoyed many meals with your family in those days. Your dad had a positive influence on my life and many of our mutual friends ... which included his culinary tastes. It's wonderful to see your father's creativity, entusiasm and energy in your cooking.

Terrific column. My compliments to the CHEF!

Posted by: msmisher | June 18, 2009 4:30 PM

Hi Kim - I remember your father so well - he was a nice person and a fun guy to be around. You were a little girl and your brother, John, was friendly with my son, Jon Segal.
I love how beautifully you've expressed your memories of your Dad and I realize how lucky I was to have my Dad until he passed away at 91. I think of him every day - not just on Father's Day.
You have achieved much in your life and your Dad would be so proud of you!
Warm wishes--

Posted by: eliselessans | June 18, 2009 4:49 PM

Jon, Elise, Mish: Thank you for sharing your memories of my father. I am deeply touched and have felt his energy all around me in my office today.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | June 18, 2009 5:39 PM

Jhershelredpuppy1, I think the kitchen is a great place to channel the energy of those we love and miss, no matter how much time has passed. Thank you so very much for sharing your story. I think you'd enjoy reading "Toast" by Nigel Slater.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | June 18, 2009 5:44 PM

As was mentioned earlier, personal favorite foods are connected with people we love who've passed away. In my case my dad made a memorable Caesar salad (with a raw egg! which fascinated us kids) and kabobs. When he fried boudin we rushed to open all the windows to air out the place. The Caesar salad and kabobs I miss, but they wouldn't taste the same without him.

Posted by: BeenThere8 | June 18, 2009 6:51 PM

Kim -
What a beautiful column.
Thank you,
Newton Mom

Posted by: frolis | June 18, 2009 8:13 PM


Thank you for a wonderful remembrance. I have two food memories from my father (who is blessedly with me). When growing up in Nebraska, he would have lobsters flown in for the big New Year's Eve party (a big deal as the Cornhuskers would hopefully be playing the next day). The second was Christmas Eve. The meal would be a cold platter with mushroom soup.

Regards and BB (buh-bye).


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | June 18, 2009 8:31 PM

davemarks: happy to share! I lightened it a bit, using light butter , light cream cheese and cutting out one egg yolk, but it works either way. You'll want a stand mixer or strong arms.

Oma’s Fruitcake (light)
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup light butter – softened (regular butter works, too)
4 oz neufchatel cheese (light cream cheese)
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 egg white
1/4 cup corn syrup
dash cinnamon
1/3 cup orange juice
dash cloves
1 pound candied fruit
1/4 cup raisins (golden preferred)

Preheat oven to 350. Grease 2 loaf pans and line bottoms with wax paper.

Mix 2 Tablespoons of the flour with the candied fruit & raisins.

Beat butter with sugar. Add cream cheese (neufchatel) and combine thoroughly. Add eggs, one at a time and egg white. Add corn syrup & orange juice.

Mix dry ingredients together. Add to batter, alternating with fruit mixture. It will get very thick. Spoon into pans and bake until golden brown, test with a toothpick. (Minimum one hour, dry crumb, if any. Don't want gooeyness.)

Cool on rack, remove from pan & remove paper. Finish cooling on rack. When cold, soak cheesecloth in run and wrap. Wrap in foil. I store in the fridge; she doesn't.


Posted by: GirlScoutMom | June 19, 2009 9:42 AM

Your father's memory seems to live on in both your writing and in your resemblence to him. My own father is still alive, thanks to an angioplasy he had in 2001 which has made me even more thankful for the time I get to spend with him. However, my uncle died much too young at the age of 43 when I was in 6th grade. How I wish I could go back in time and re-live some of the visits with him.

Posted by: IrishFox | June 19, 2009 10:18 AM

Thanks for another great column, Kim. However, the unpeeled roasted garlic in the Oven Fries recipe worries me. Does the peel come off on the potatoes when they are tossed together after roasting? Do people eat the unpeeled garlic?

Posted by: Barbara_in_Gambrills | June 19, 2009 3:24 PM

Thank you! I love pound cake and I love fruit cake, so I couldn't resist asking.

Posted by: davemarks | June 19, 2009 3:50 PM

Barbara, no need to worry. The skin will slide right off after being roasted. The garlic gets really mellow and buttery and is lovely spread, almost like a butter -- I love it all by itself!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | June 19, 2009 5:52 PM

Thank you for the column, which I always enjoy. Your father's day posts this year and last have touched me especially. I empathize having lost my father when I was 10 years old (he was 36).
I admire the loving way that you pay tribute to your dad in these columns.
My cooking memories of mine include Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes on Saturday mornings, his attempt at pigs in a blanket (which came out of the blanket) and him sneaking me pop in my thermos in elementary school (exploded on the school bus).
I have been lucky enough to have welcomed a wonderful and loving stepfather into our family since then. He now saves frozen berries to make us blueberry pancakes on Sundays whenever we are at home although he prefers chocolate chip.
I can't imagine my life without either of them and feel very fortunate on Father's day.

Posted by: amyfp214 | June 19, 2009 11:26 PM

Great piece Kim!

Your father was a wonderful man who helped me in alot ways no one knows. His friendship was something my parents treasured and will never be forgotten by any of us.

Great picture of two wonderful people!

Posted by: barry11 | June 22, 2009 10:15 AM

Kim, thats really such a lovely post..thanks for sharing your memories with us..

Posted by: cooking4allseasons | June 24, 2009 7:14 AM

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