As Father’s Day approaches, you might have seen the onslaught of advertising that implores us to buy dad “what he really wants” this year, which apparently means grilling tools and only grilling tools. It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that Dad’s cooking know-how extends only to the patio, ceasing to exist the moment the grill is extinguished and he presents his family with a plate of perfectly cooked burgers. But that’s not always a fair representation. Lots of dads have serious kitchen skills; maybe your father was even the primary chef of your household, applying that classic paternal practicality to the matter of how to feed as many people as efficiently as possible. Whatever the case, dads love being right, and they’re always ready to dispense advice, however unsolicited it might be. So here’s the best cooking advice our dads ever gave us, no matter their level of expertise.
Play the hits
Every meal cooked by my dad was one of brats, ribs, chicken, or hamburgers. Potatoes on the grill and corn on the cob were the most common accompaniments. It was never terrible. I know (or I’ve heard) he was capable of making other things, but we never experienced this variety firsthand. Dad knew what he could make well and stuck to it.
As I’ve matured, I’ve extrapolated his strategy of playing the hits. When I started entertaining, it was terrifying because I felt an obligation to try cooking something new and “special” to show off to dinner guests, and it rarely turned out well. Eventually I stopped picking new things. I practiced a few staples over and over to have some reliable dishes I knew I could make well, such as ribs (like my dad), or risotto, or, during cookout season, baked beans. The “I could make this in my sleep” meal is a great option when there are guests. It’s less stressful because you’re not trying to learn the recipe and entertain simultaneously, and it’s gratifying to see people enjoy something you’re really confident in preparing.
Please don’t interpret this as “don’t try new things”—quite the opposite. Try and experiment as much as you can. Just don’t do it with dinner guests. While entertaining, play the hits. —Nick Leggin, contributor
When in doubt, add a slice of bread
My dad is mostly fearless. He comes from the dusty part of Texas where every man is born with a full set of tobacco-stained teeth, and he grew up sitting on my grandparents’ flat roof watching packs of funnel clouds tango in the distance. (At least, so he claims.) When I was 10, he drove my screaming siblings and me home from Walmart at a snail’s pace, refusing to break the speed limit even as an enormous tornado chased us down the highway. When I was 12, he called my middle school bully and threatened to sue her for slander. The man fears nothing—except a poorly made turkey sandwich.
My dad knows a good turkey sandwich. He’s eaten one for lunch every day for at least 30 years. His recipe involves no condiments, no toppings, just two thin slices of deli turkey and three slices of bread: one on top, one on bottom, and one in the middle. He’s always done it that way. “It’s like eating two sandwiches, but with fewer carbs,” he told me. “Makes total sense.”
Carb concerns aside, he’s also been known to use a slice of bread to soak up the juice from a can of Ranch Style Beans, or to discreetly feed to his beloved Yorkie, Frankie. Whether you’re making a sandwich or chugging down the highway pursued by an F4 cyclone, an extra slice of bread can’t hurt.—Lillian Stone, staff writer
Eat ramen straight from the pot
My dad...doesn’t cook. Unless you call instant ramen cooking. If my mom’s busy or out, my dad fixes himself lunch, and it is, without fail, instant ramen. I have never seen anyone eat so much of it so consistently. Now, this isn’t advice, a trick, or a cooking tip. It’s just a habit my dad has: he eats ramen straight from the pot. I have not taken on this habit myself, but, uh, that’s fewer dishes to wash, right? Thanks, Dad! —Dennis Lee, staff writer
Go out to eat
My dad was a Jewish Prince. Jewish Princesses get much more attention, but believe me, there are plenty of Jewish Princes out there. Adored by their old-fashioned, house-proud mothers, Jewish Princes are brought up in complete ignorance of basic household chores. My father’s personal motto was “Jewish boys don’t work with their hands.” (Note: this did not apply to Jewish girls, which was why my mother and I handled most of the yard work and small home repairs.) And he stuck to it faithfully his entire life.
The kitchen is a mysterious place to a Jewish Prince, as is the laundry room. I have a photo of my father, aged 67, staring into the depths of the washing machine, as if he’s waiting for it to reveal his secrets. (I won’t lie, it’s one of my favorite pictures of him.) Consequently, my father knew how to prepare exactly five things in the kitchen: triple-decker peanut butter and butter sandwiches, eggs over easy, toasted bagels, fried potatoes (though I only saw him make this once), and a revolting mixture of RC Cola and Quik powder that he called a chocolate phosphate.
But my father did love his food. He was a devoted watcher of the Food Network (well, whenever the game he was watching on the other channel got a little boring) and such a regular at the grocery store that everyone greeted him by name, and when he died, the manager sent over a fruit platter as a sign of their collective esteem. And he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the best restaurants in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago—or at least the ones that prepared the food he liked. His idea of “international cuisine” only went as far as Greek and Italian, but he had an excellent eye for pizza, seafood, Grecian chicken, hot dogs, and especially dive-bar cheeseburgers. I can’t remember him ever taking me out for a bad meal.
He never actually verbalized his cooking philosophy, but I think it would be, “If you don’t feel like cooking, don’t. Go out instead.” Which really isn’t bad advice at all. —Aimee Levitt, associate editor