So, I try to write each August about my dad, the original Hal Phillips, who passed away seven years ago this month, all too soon. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him in some way, shape or form. Many times, that moment comes when I open the refrigerator door and see my collection of hot sauces.
My dad was an enthusiastic eater and devotee of exotic, spicy and otherwise full-flavored food. Growing up, we used to kid him that he had essentially deadened his taste buds — such was the relish with which he applied not just hot sauce but salt, butter, condiments and dressings of any kind. He took this ribbing as he took most efforts to curb his foundational behaviors — with good-natured indifference — then went ahead and treated his pig knuckle with another dollop of blazing-hot mustard.
My paternal, Jersey-based grandmother was not an enthusiastic or particularly skilled cook (whenever we went to visit, she would serve us the same thing, in great quantity: steak, corn and a black forest cake from Sara Lee). American cuisine in the 1940s and ’50s — in private homes, in restaurants — was pretty bland. My dad’s reaction to this cultural upbringing was to find himself a wife who, among other things, appreciated and was equipped to prepare the same wide variety of food.
For her part, my mom, Lucy Dickinson Phillips, was raised on the West Coast, which, because it was still America in the ‘40s and ‘50s, was similarly staid on the food front. But Californians did have good Mexican, not to mention proper Chinese. What’s more, her mother occasionally cooked things like (gasp!) curry. In this and so many other ways, my mom proved the woman of my dad’s dreams.
Perhaps on account of their relatively white-bread American upbringings, older couples today are often satirized for this single-mindedness. How was your trip to New York? “Oh, we found the most wonderful northern Italian restaurant near Washington Square…” My parents routinely answered travel questions in this fashion; mom still does. As a good cook, she grew annoyed when my dad would salt or spice food up before tasting it. But their 50 years together were a more or less uninterrupted, gleeful quest for good eats. As such, it has fallen to their children to react in kind — to try and restore some level of sanity and moderation to the food-intake process.
This remains a work in progress.
For a variety of reasons, we did not dine out in the formal sense that much growing up, not as a family. First of all, there weren’t that many worthy places to go and spend that sort of money in the Boston suburbs back in the 1970s, not so much as my parents were concerned anyway. Dinner out was “a treat” and save the odd pizza (Geno’s in Needham), there was a high-brow element that my parents attached to the exercise — an intimacy, as well. This only served to magnify our foundational value of food generally, an ethic that was driven home daily, at home.
This food obsession was hidden in plain sight, as it were, because our house in Wellesley was famous for never having anything “good” to eat. My mother had been, by her own account, “a chubby child” and wanted to spare us that fate. She sometimes baked sweets but there were no store-bought cookies, no soda, no sugary cereals. These items were frowned upon. (When my brother Matthew and I would sneak downstairs to procure a little something extra, we often had to settle for a piece of bread; for “dessert”, in lunches, she would pack a little mixed bag of Cheerios and raisins.) Ice cream was sometimes around, but not for long: It was scarfed down so quickly that my mother’s resolve — to limit other junky foods, which went even faster — was only strengthened.
Alas, this otherwise reasonable tack only served to ratchet up the value of (and our desire for) that we could not have. For junk food we were obliged to go elsewhere, to the store or friends’ houses. By the same token, however, our friends did not turn down an invitation to dinner at the Phillips household. No Twinkies, but neither was one going to sample Brazilian feijoada anywhere else.
All these factors served to place an inordinate family value on food. While my mom’s more ascetic attitudes had an effect (in reverse), my dad was the overt enabler. He was our chief over-admirer of victuals generally and my mother’s cooking in particular.
I’ve written here before that my dad’s chief method of intimacy was to share with someone something that he enjoyed. With music and movies, it wasn’t enough to simply listen or watch something he’d recommended in one’s own time — he wanted to listen/watch with you, right then, without delay. Food was perhaps the easiest thing for him to share in this primal, immediate way.
As I think back on it, my young eating life was one expression of food-based intimacy after another. At home, mom prepared the vittles and dad lavished praise on them. I wish I had a picture of the face he’d make when some dish truly pushed his buttons — so blissful as to be almost comic. When he encountered pleasing to the palate that nevertheless defied description, he’d call it “an extraordinary juxtaposition of colors, flavors and textures.”
The man’s feast was moveable. No more than a week after relocating his family to Boston in 1973, he took us all to Elsie’s, a deli he remembered from his graduate school days in Cambridge; this was the first time I had experienced Russian dressing (with pickle relish) on a roast beef sandwich. For Chinese, it was the famous Joyce Chen’s, also in Cambridge, followed by The Wok, not so fancy but one of Wellesley’s few restaurants of note during the 1970s.
It was my dad who stumbled upon then introduced me to Buzzy’s, the filthy-but-fabulous burger and sub shack located hard by Boston’s Charles Street Jail. His never-ending search for the perfect eggplant parmesan grinder (a Jersey boy, he rarely called them “subs”) led to a thorough survey of sandwich specialists across MetroWest. Natick House of Pizza would prove the lasting choice (they made excellent pies as well), though cold subs were the special purview of Wellesley’s Linden Street Deli, one of the few places in Greater Boston where my dad could get a mixed meat with headcheese.
For the uninitiated, headcheese is a terrine or meat jelly made with flesh from the head of a calf or pig, then sliced up for sandwich use. I remember when he spelled out to me exactly what this delicacy entailed — I thought he was fucking with me. My mom liked it (her father, a Virginian raised in California, called it souse), but the rest of us drew the line on headcheese. My dad drew no lines.
He referred to the donut as “nature’s perfect food” and would drive two towns out of his way for a particularly worthy jelly stick. Trips to back to New Jersey, to see his parents, were timed so that we might pass through Vernon, Conn. — home to Rein’s, one of New England’s few bona fide Jewish delicatessens — so he might get a decent tongue sandwich for lunch. He was obsessed with proper fried chicken (a rarity in New England still today) and felt more or less obliged to stop and sample any place that offered a glimmer of hope. He was obsessed with chicken liver omelets and Munchos, a ‘70s-era potato chip simulacrum one can still find today, on occasion. He had a vast understanding of exactly where in Eastern Massachusetts one might find a decent Chinese buffet (an urge my brother inherited and has updated for the 21st century apparently).
As the oldest child, my sister Janet was allowed to hold forth on this vital at dad’s memorial service. Her eulogy, entitled “Things Dad Loved”, touched on many important subjects (back scratches, flannel shirts, mechanical pencils, her) but it wasn’t by accident that she started with comestibles.
“Cabbage,” she told the assembled. “He love kimchee and sauerkraut, but he also liked it boiled with cider vinegar… Stinky cheese. You could always tell when you walked into the house if he was serving up epoisse [he also loved Liederkranz, an American take on Limburger]… Condiments. Varied and spread thick. Waffles were enjoyed with butter, syrup and lemon juice. When we cleared out the mini-fridge at the hospital there were no less than three lemons… Chocolate chip cookies. Mom used to try new cookie recipes all the time but Dad would always comment that they were good, but not as good as a tollhouse cookie.
“Hot, spicy food. The hotter the better. At restaurants where the spiciness could be varied to your liking, he would always indicate hottest. Paul and I were mortified one time at a very formal Szechuan restaurant when, after already stating his preference, and with the waiter about to walk away with our order, Daddy pinches his cuff and admonished that he wanted it really hot.”
Once we’d all gone off to college, we’d return home where the talk would quickly and invariably turn to some new dish my mom had whipped up the day before (something my dad couldn’t stop raving about and whose leftovers he wanted you to try RIGHT NOW) or the new restaurants they had discovered. My parents shared plenty of noteworthy fine-dining experiences over the years, but left to their own devices they preferred the ethnic and low-key.
The first time I remember being struck by this predilection (because Chinese food didn’t strike me as particularly novel or ethnic) was during the mid-1980s, when they couldn’t stop talking about some Korean place in Inman Square. This was 30 years before the Korean BBQ craze. What’s more, I lived in Somerville at the time, right down the street from Inman Square. Never heard of the place.
The two of them were early adopters when it came to Thai cuisine, something they bemoaned in retrospect because over time they felt it had become “Americanized” (read: ever more inauthentically sweetened). At some point they developed a serial interest in the Brazilian restaurants of Framingham. After much hype, they took me to one of them — a massive, meat-centric buffet where cashiers weighed one’s plate and charged accordingly. There was a Peruvian phase (not sure where that place was), countless Indian restaurants, Vietnamese, Ethiopian… You name it and they had tried it, loved it, and couldn’t stop extolling its virtues.
On some level, I think my mother was a bit embarrassed by just how much her husband fixated on his daily bread. To her it bordered on boorish and she can’t be blamed for objecting: He ate too fast and, according to Jewish stereotype, too often put his head down and chowed with a bit too much single-minded gusto (see Costanza, George). Later in his life, and more than once, I found him in front of the open fridge, eating jelly from the jar with a spoon. And there was his inveterate, by-rote salting and spicing, which really did drive my mom insane: “How do you know it needs salt before you’ve tried it?”
I imagine some of her criticism was lodged in an attempt to set a better example for her children — and some of it did take hold. My wife Sharon is another excellent, inventive cook. But she’s got high blood pressure and cooks with very little salt. Even so, I always taste before resorting to one my array of salt-delivery systems (read: at least six different hot sauce options). I like to think that I better balance the food-intake process with sociability and decorum. Headcheese makes me gag and there are plenty of strong tastes my dad craved (bitter greens like Swiss chard) that I do not.
What does this mean for future generations? We’ll see. Clearly I am my father’s son, but I did marry into a family that doesn’t fetishize food to the same degree, though Sharon is as helpless in the face of rippled potato chips as I am before pectin jelly beans. I have also seen my father-in-law stand in front of an open fridge eating a chocolate pudding cup, applying whipped cream to each individual spoonful.
My dad got sick in the spring of 2010 and soon was diagnosed with lymphoma. Eighteen months later he was gone. “When dad was having chemo, we usually went out for dinner in Boston that night (or the night before),” my mom remembers, “because luckily neither his illness nor treatment hurt his appetite till the very end.” That was a blessing, as was the fact that we did have those 18 months to gather as a family and bond, invariably over a meal.
Janet recalls one of his final nights in the hospital, the nurse suggested we take a break and go get some dinner. She probably meant we should go grab a cup of soup in the cafeteria. Instead we went out to a proper dinner somewhere nearby — perhaps appalling the hospital staff with our callous disregard for the moment. But Dad would have understood and approved.
My brother Matthew recalls that near the end he went to Linden Street to procure for the old man his signature grinder. Alas, he was told they didn’t carry headcheese any longer. Matthew expressed surprise and regret, noting that it was dad’s favorite. “Yeah,” the guy said, “He was the only one.”