In My Father’s Kitchen
November 15, 2011 | by Chris Wallace
I used to joke that I have daddy issues with Jacques Pépin, because it was he who really raised me. My parents divorced when I was a year old and, until I was thirteen, they split custody in every conceivable way. It was my father’s habit to write in the mornings and watch his favorite cooking shows in the afternoon, with a drink, while preparing dinner. On the days I was with him, I watched too. Usually it was Julia Child, or the Frugal Gourmet; later it was Jacques, and then Jacques and Julia. Recipes and technique were like my nursery rhymes and I grew up—“spoiled rotten,” my dad would say—only ever eating perfect pie crust. By the time I was eleven, my knife skills were impeccable, my Caesar salad the best ever (in my family, hyperbole is hereditary). When my mother invited my high school girlfriend and her parents for dinner I served a traditional osso buco and risotto Milanese. It was a success—my culinary coming out party—and one in which my father, who felt he deserved the credit, took particular pride.
As a Depression baby, my father was raised by a generation of people who wouldn’t utter a sound if their hair were on fire. He spent most of his childhood in the kitchen, with the family cook, because he was afraid to go anywhere else in the house. The Wallaces do their suffering in silence. My father’s father, David Frederick Wallace Sr.—Fred, he was called—went off on drinking benders, leaving the family for days at a time. He died of liver failure at just fifty-seven. Fred’s father committed suicide and the family never spoke of it. The thought of my own father having a personal conversation with his mother, or with his grandmother, whom everyone called the Dragonlady, seems impossible—with his Aunt Bess or his uncle, President Harry Truman, outrageous.
In my youth, my father and I continued this tradition, juxtaposing all that quiet with some good old yelling. My father is not small—6' 2'', and a barrel of a guy—and when I was a child he seemed to me a giant out of fairy tales: domineering, mercurial, and remote. I can still remember the terror I felt one night as I searched desperately, in vain, for the car keys as he screamed at me to find them. I, in turn, would try to injure him by attacking his cooking. He’s still heartbroken today from the time when, at ten, I said, “Your food smells better, but mommy’s tastes better.” Even into my adolescence we had little in common. When I got a scholarship to play football in college, my father, the opera fan, wrote in the local paper, “I thought I was going to have a choir boy, but I got a quarterback.”
It wasn’t until twenty-two, in a subterranean Italian restaurant in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on a road trip from Austin to Ogden, that I truly determined to get to know my father.
It was the revelation that did it—my mother breaking the secret that my father was gay. Over what I think was chicken in Elmer’s glue, she just let it slip. They’d been divorced for twenty-one seemingly celibate years. “He hasn’t told you?” she asked. “He told me he’d told you.”
I affected indignation, shock even. But the moment had the resonance of literature—naming something I didn’t know I knew. Later I would go around telling people that it wasn’t a conclusion a son could come to about his father, no matter the evidence. But the evidence, in retrospect, looked substantial: an encyclopedic knowledge of opera—gay; fabulous taste in furniture—also gay; phenomenal talent in the kitchen and a love for luxury and glamour—gay! How could I not know? Though he was less flamboyant in his mannerisms then, it must have seemed painfully clear to onlookers. In fact, it was my recounting of a trip to Fauchon in Paris, to pick up his favored Melange des Isles tricolor peppercorns, that elicited my mother’s revelation.
It took me three months to drag myself back to Los Angeles to confront my father. When I did, he was serving a leg of lamb atop his Saarinen tulip table at his elegant 1920s Spanish-style apartment in Hollywood—gay, gay, gay—and I said to him, “So that time when you lived in New York with Ronnie … were you two roommates or lovers?”
“Oh well, a little of both,” he said. He must have surprised himself by saying this, because suddenly nothing was as important as retrieving the salt from the kitchen (in a hand-me-down sterling-silver mill—gay). “You do realize,” I said—shouted—to him in the next room, “that until ten seconds ago you’ve never said a word about your sexuality.” “Well it was none of your business,” he said, rumbling back into the dining room. He set the salt mill on the table. That was it. And then we ate.
Descended as I am from a line of great wallowers, I throw one hell of a pity party. I whined to girlfriends about my father, I drank like a proper Scotsman seven generations removed, and I sulked with the cosmic force of twenty-one-year-old angst. What sweet solace I took in blaming my father for all of my perceived failings in masculinity. No wonder I was so different from the back-slapping, arm-wrestling boys I grew up with. Lacking his introduction into their codes and secret handshakes, I had been forever closed off from their fraternity.
During this time, I enrolled in a grad school in Los Angeles and started dating a childhood crush. One night, in the fall, my mother invited my girlfriend and me to dinner at Pastis on Beverly. I was drinking and carrying on about being the fool. “I feel like everyone’s been laughing at me my entire life,” I moaned.
My mother turned on me and said quietly, “It wasn’t you they were laughing at.”
My pity party ended then and there.
The truth was that even as I wanted to harbor a Shakespearean grudge against my father, I was warmed by his accidental revelation. I thought about how he had grown up very alone, in a conservative family during the conservative fifties. How he had no one he could speak frankly to until he met my mother working on the original production of Hair. The day after my dinner at Pastis, I decided to drop by my father’s apartment. I found him on the couch watching Molto Mario. I sat down and joined him. He fixed us drinks, negronis. “Like sitting at Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navona,” he said.
After four years in a college weightroom I was now bigger than the giant. I could laugh now when he shouted the roof down, and tease him about losing his keys. It started to seem as if we had things in common, after all. He was writing books about Golden Age Hollywood; I was making short films in present day Hollywood. I was writing celebri-ganda for magazines, and he’d worked with the gossip columnist Liz Smith for twenty-odd years. I’d always known, like chapters of myth, that he had once owned a Ferrari, had met the Pope and Christmas-ed at the White House. But now his stories became human, real. I discovered that his favorite meal was ham and scalloped potatoes, and guessed it was because it reminded him of meals growing up in Independence, Missouri. (It was my favorite meal too, because it reminded me of the meals he’d made me, growing up in Los Angeles.) Every day that year, I went over to my dad’s apartment in the mid-afternoon. He made cocktails and we watched Mario Batali’s classic stand-and-stir.
We came to love this great ginger Falstaff, the medium through whom we were reconnecting, as a member of our extended family. He cooked with the same giddiness as my father—dropping in references to Proust, telling stories about visiting markets in Abruzzo or wineries in the Castelli, and stirring our romance for food along with his braising liquid. “Marsala means port of Allah,” he would say, and my father would light up like a four year old. “Isn’t that wonderful?” he’d say, and sip his gin. When the travel edition, Mario Eats Italy, entered the mix, my Dad and I were, as he would say, in hog heaven. Every day Batali cooked in his cliffside villa outside Positano before trooping around the Amalfi coast for lemons the size of grapefruit, glistening crustaceans, and bright, metallic, deep-sea swimmers to cook on the beach.
In these fantastic adventures, and the recipes and ingredients on Mario’s shows, my father and I found our common language. I would call him from grocery stores to ask his opinion about frying chicken in grapeseed oil, just so that we could argue about the relative merits of lipids. Though he still wouldn’t really talk about his past, he did tell me about his first oyster (“with Daddy”) and the psychology behind his sweet tooth (“When I was a boy and had done something right I would be rewarded with a treat,” he said. “I suppose I am still trying to chase that feeling.”).
On the day of my graduation, my father and I threw a dinner party and coauthored the menu. The man who had never allowed another soul in his kitchen was sharing his with me. Afterward, he took me on a trip to Rome and Positano. We drank our negronis at Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navona, and on a marble terrace overlooking La Sirenuse and the coast we’d seen on our favorite show. One night we ate so many of those glistening crustaceans and shellfish that my dad got gout and couldn’t hoof the precipitous cliffsides. So I went out alone, in search of food to bring back to the hotel.
I made sure to get him some sweets. And, together, we ate.
Chris Wallace still writes celebri-ganda and fiction and edits magazines in New York.