Both of my parents worked, and both of my parents cooked. My mother cooked our nightly dinner, cooked elaborately for dinner parties, and cooked traditionally for holidays; my father had a small selection of specialties which he prepared brilliantly, but from which it was unwise for him to stray. Just as he could play “Waltzing Matilda”on the piano with great panache (but nothing else, because he didn’t read music and had never had a piano lesson in his life) he prepared omelets, souffles and quiches that were enviable in their perfection and deliciousness. He also had a way with bread pudding and rice pudding. Outside this egg-y arena he cooked with rather less flair, tending to make meatloaf stuffed with random and vaguely repellant leftovers, lunches featuring Devilled Ham sandwiches with mayonnaise, and his 1970s specialty of pork chops with Risotto a la Milanese. This last item he made quite nicely, but so often that my brother and I dreaded our mother’s departure for a conference, knowing that we would, at least twice, be served the ubiquitous pork and risotto duo when we really craved macaroni and cheese or fried chicken.
It’s strange, given the fact that my mother was the main cook in the family, that my first memorable cooking lesson occurred not under her direction, but under my father’s. Maybe it was because cooking was less novel and entertaining for her, or because I was always more willing to receive instruction from my father, tending to ruffle and become stone-faced at the suggestion that I might learn anything from a woman who seemed to do everything well, cheerfully, and with enviable ease while I fumbled through life eccentric and misunderstood. If I could not emulate her (and I could not) I could reject her natural ebullience and social success as too cheap for the likes of me; I preferred to think that my artistic temperament and delicate nature were better handled by the parent who also tended to be shy, self-effacing and hyper-sensitive.
I was probably nine or ten when my father taught me how to make an omelette, and it is the first thing I remember cooking by myself after the lesson was over. He taught me to beat three eggs and a splash of milk, using a fork, never an egg beater (although we had both), to have the cheese shredded before I began cooking, and to melt a pat of butter in an omelette pan, maneuvering the handle so that the thin veil of foaming liquid coated the entire bottom and sides of the pan. The eggs were then poured gently in, and a thin and flexible spatula was used to go around the quickly setting disc of egg, raising the edge and tipping the pan slightly so that the uncooked portion could slide underneath towards the heat. When only a faint hint of raw egg remained in the center, the cheese was sprinkled evenly across a precise half-moon of egg, allowed to begin melting and then concealed by the Big Flip, the trickiest part of the process. My father started me off with the two-spatula method which ensured that there would not be a tragic break in the puffy, golden top; after an assortment of successes and failure in the flipping department (all edible, just not always pretty) I graduated to swift, one-spatula glory.
The gift of omelette instruction has served me well for nearly forty years. When I was a poor law student I could get four dinners out of a carton of eggs, a stick of butter and a hunk of cheese (I could sometimes even have toast with it). When I was dating, it was an easy and impressive breakfast with which to dazzle a sleep-over guest. When I am home alone now, it is my default solo meal. I can, and do make fancy omelets for other people, utilitarian omelets filled with leftovers, and experimental omelets filled with everything from spaghetti to cottage cheese. I make “blank” omelets with no filling, but perhaps a drizzling of truffle oil or a sprinkling of really good, crunchy salt. I never even get through cracking the eggs without hearing my father’s voice in my head, no matter what fresh hell is erupting among the dogs, cats, children and telephone; even if I am plugged in to a podcast or a little mood music I can hear him, and my hands demonstrate perfect muscle memory as I crack, splash, whip, melt, pour, cook and flip.
He gave me a lot more than a thrifty and versatile meal option, or a set of good, basic egg-cooking skills, my dad; he gave me an example of patience, craftsmanship, gentleness and the importance doing one’s best, even at the humblest of tasks. Those lessons will be with me every time I make another omelette, even when he’s no longer just across town, quite possibly whisking his own eggs as a pat of butter melts in the pan.