Father’s Day, Table for One

My father taught me how to split and butter a baked potato so it ends up fluffy, how to dry a Chevrolet Impala after you’ve washed it so your towel doesn’t scratch the paint. He taught me that I needed to go confess to the crazy lady next door that I’d trampled her jade plant, and that you can turn pink hydrangeas blue by pissing on the roots. And he taught me how to eat in restaurants.

Actually not how, but why to eat in restaurants.

Here’s the thing to know about my dad. He grew up a poor boy in housing projects in San Francisco and just south of there, had only a high school education, and spent his working life as a grocery clerk at Safeway supermarkets, a job he hated and endured.

My dad believed that fine restaurants were civilizing. A man got class by doing classy things, and showing up at the Iron Gate restaurant in San Carlos, California, say, in a jacket and tie and cufflinks, tasting the Cabernet and sniffing the cork, was a very classy thing. Restaurants like the Iron Gate with its flocked wallpaper and brass picture lights illuminating the still lifes—they were expressions of taste and culture, but also, especially, of labor.

It wasn’t simply that expensive things gave you class. He had plenty of scorn for rich people who seemed arrogant, or who got their money easily, without working for it. It was labor harnessed to create refinement—that was a restaurant’s civilizing power. Instead of stocking shelves or merchandising grocery end-caps like he did to get paid, chefs created something honorable. Something memorable.

If he was born into a later generation, maybe he could have hung up his clerk’s apron and gone to culinary school. But guys in my dad’s time and class didn’t really do that. They stayed where they were, counting the years till the pension kicked in.

Going out to a fine restaurant with my dad was an act of paying respect, both for the place, the cooks and floor staff, and to us. In my dad’s reckoning you earned self-respect by dressing up and displaying manners, never being rude to waiters, and acting with dignity. At the same time, it embarrassed him that he could never get French words right when he talked to waiters, stumbling over Sauvignon and niçoise as if he were facing a half-dozen forks set out at a fancy dinner party and had no clue which one to pick up first.

And though he earned the wages of a grocery clerk, there was no bill I ever saw him balk at paying, not at Charlie Trotter’s or Zuni Café or Chez Panisse. Going out with my dad was the experience of feeling tucked in, secure. You knew that for the next two hours the world was no bigger than the table between you, and that anything you wanted—that Austrian Kabinett you had your eye on, a pasta course before the entrees, or cheese before dessert—you were going to get it.

My dad taught me that the value of a meal, even a really expensive one, is partly intangible—it’s about spirit and intention, respect and dignity. And five years ago, in a bland Sonoma hospital room with the sunlight fading, my dad taught me how to let all of that just go.

Over a span of 14 hours in that room, I watched him wind up his affairs, loosening the ties of people he’d cared for, as he yielded to the imperative of failing lungs. Every pleasure, aspiration, the memory of every meal we’d had together, all the things that, only yesterday, had meaning. He had to let them be, leave them on the plate, untouched. It’s the hardest lesson he taught me, the one I still struggle to grasp. Often at restaurant tables.

Chez Panisse photo by Flickr member N-Q under Creative Commons

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.