Paul Kaser (1909-1996), my father, has been gone for many years from this earth, but not from my heart and my mind. I think of him very often, and particularly on Father’s Day.
For instance, I recently went to a farmer’s market here in Tucson and bought some corn on the cob. They’re known as roasteneers where I came from in Ohio, a descriptive word to separate feed corn from “roasting ears.” I have never had a really good ear of corn outside of the Ohio corn country where I grew up. They are carried too far from where they were raised. They didn’t get enough moisture from summer rains. They just didn’t grow in Ohio corn company.
Even in Ohio, where we hoped for the corn to be “knee high by the 4th of July” in order to yield a good crop at the end of the summer, the roasteneers are not always perfect. Dad was a great story-teller and I never buy or cook roasteneers without hearing Dad’s tale about corn in my head. Perfect, my dad explained, works like this:
You have to plant the corn on a hillside. When it is time to harvest the roasteneers, you build a fire under a big kettle of water at the bottom of the hill, and cut the ears off so they roll down hill directly into the kettle. It is the only way to be sure the corn is fresh enough, he swore.
I have other kitchen memories with Dad. When I was around nine and ten years old, we lived in Columbus, Ohio and Dad and I did the dishes after dinner. He was very particular about methods of doing things. For instance, dishes should be stacked when they were waiting to be washed–not just scattered all over the counter taking up the whole kitchen. I still compulsively stack dirty dishes beside the sink as I take them from the table.
Next, he explained that there was a proper order to washing the dishes. The least dirty things–like water glasses, went in first, so they wouldn’t be spotted with the water that got greasy as the progression of plates, silverware, and finally pans went through the dishwater. That bit of knowledge is definitely lost in the age of automatic dishwashers.
Another crochet of Daddy’s was hard butter. He hated having butter that tore holes in the bread. So he and mother constantly struggled to find the right balance. Leave the butter out long enough to be spreadable, but not so long that it would become a greasy pool on the plate in Ohio’s summertime heat.
And the bread that the butter went on? He hated white factory bread (like Rainbo) with a passion. One of his favorite parlor tricks was to illustrate the inedible-ness of that gooey white bread by tearing off the crust and rolling the white bread into a ball, which he bounced on the floor. If you have any of that offensive stuff around your house, try it. After turning bread into a rubber ball, you’re more inclined to go for the multi-grain or home-baked varieties.
Our father was also fearless when it came to food. He approached most of life with the soul of an engineer. (He wasn’t one, but that’s a long story which I’ll get to another time). So of course, he looked at preparing food as a science. I will always remember one time when Mother went to Killbuck to visit Grandma and Grandpa Anderson, and Dad was free to experiment. He decided to make cottage cheese. It turned out pretty well, as I recall, and gave him plenty of fodder for stories, but he moved on and I don’t know that he ever tried that particular experiment again.
Although he had been raised in a Seven-Day Adventist family and attended vegetarian gatherings when they lived in the Washington D.C. area, he never shunned meat. His background may have made him more enthusiastic about vegetables, fresh foods and pure foods, but his favorite eating places were a small basement level restaurant in Columbus Ohio that served day-old stew. He raved about that place long after it went out of business, and praised stew that had aged a bit.
His other favorite restaurant was Chicago’s meat-heavy German restaurant, Berghoff. He loved the waiter’s in their formal suits and nearly floor-length aprons. I visited Chicago in the 90’s and was able to report to him that it had barely changed during its 100 year history. It has undergone some drastic changes, but apparently is now back to serving the classic dishes along with newer version.
If some of what I have written makes him sound a bit stiff and stern–he looked that way to my boyfriends because when he was very small, he had injured one eye, and so he always seemed to be scowling. And he did approach everything in life methodically. But he also had a quick wit and boundless imagination.
But those who knew him thought first of his humorous story telling. I’m sure that more of his stories will pop up here at Ancestors in Aprons, and not just on Father’s Day. Here are a couple Paul Kaser stories from my brother.
Meanwhile, if you are fortunate to still have your father with you, give him a special Father’s Day gift. Ask him to tell you about his childhood, his favorite foods, what he remembers of his mother’s cooking, what his favorite restaurants were. Record his memories. Because fathers don’t last forever.