I always liked spending time with my father when I was young, the bench seat in the red Dodge Ram always felt so big and comfortable. The dashboard had a film of brown dust from our dirt road, with sand on the floor mats and the smell of decaying grass clippings. He is six foot two, weighs two hundred and fifteen pounds and when I was young I thought he was a giant. He would take my brother and me lobstering in Menemsha Pond, a saltwater pond a mile from our house. We would pile into the dinghy, bringing along one clean bucket for the lobsters, one bucket filled with rotten fish used as bait in woven bags to replace the empty ones in each pot and a thermos with water. To haul a lobster pot you first have to locate your buoy — ours were always white and blue — then snatch it from alongside the boat, finally bringing the heavy pot up from the bottom, hand over hand before perching on the side of the boat.
When we first started lobstering together, my job was to lean over the side of the boat while my father navigated to each buoy. I would snag the buoy while he put the outboard engine in neutral as he stepped away from the center console and in one motion would take the buoy from my hands and quickly bring the pot to the surface while I watched his effortless strength. The bait smelled awful and seagulls would circle overhead while we pried lobsters from their temporary home, measured them, banded their claws and tossed them in the clean, white five-gallon pail. The bait bags would be replaced, leaving an odor on your fingers for the rest of the day, the pots were flung overboard and we would repeat the process. As I grew taller and stronger each summer I would gradually be allowed to bring a pot up on my own, which would cause my triceps to burn and my back to ache, eventually reaching the point when I could haul all 10 myself.
With our bucket always filled with at least six, but sometimes as many as 20 lobsters, we would return home and I would oftentimes opt to sit in the back of the truck feeling the cool air tickling my scalp. My father would steam the lobsters in a giant aluminum pot, melt butter, and we would sit outside at a wooden picnic table, eating lobsters until our bellies ached, using that same white bucket to toss our empty shells into. This was the foundation of my eating and cooking education. We would catch striped bass and bluefish together, dig potatoes from his large and fertile garden and he would grill us deer meat for dinner. Meals were always simple, eaten together as a family and part of our day was spent together, actively bringing food to our table. I had no idea there was any other way of doing things; we lived deep in the woods and there was always something nearby to gather.
Growing up is painful as you slowly realize your parents are human, flawed and will someday be gone. We are left with memories of sunburns and dried seawater in our hair, of callused hands and scars from learning how to use a pocketknife. It took years for simple lessons learned to permeate my life. The simplicity of my father’s cooking and his emphasis on family was forgotten for a time while I saw the world and ate stimulating and complicated pickled watermelon rind and pork belly salads after a shift on the line, surrounded by co-workers and potential lovers. The newness of a Momofuku pork bun plopped down on my cutting board by my mentor Mario introduced me to David Chang’s revolutionary cooking. I worked tirelessly in my twenties, grilling whole branzino over and over again, while learning how to organize my station to be able to serve 300 people in a long dinner service that felt at first like a battle I was losing, and eventually became a ballet of beef cheek ravioli.
I tasted my first crudo, raw fish minimally dressed, from the hands of Dave Pasternack of the restaurant Esca in midtown Manhattan. And it was not until years later, when I moved back home, that I realized those same rigid, bright-eyed bluefish and fluke were fitting for such a simple concept. I have grown peas on our farm for a few years now, and always aspire to grow them as radiant green and plump as my grandfather did. As I trellis them, just as he did, and they climb and cling on for dear life as they grow taller, I pluck their elephant ear-looking foliage from the tips of each plant and eat them as naked as possible. Their tender, firm leaves hold their own in a light dressing of olive oil and their delicate flavors sing with a hint of lemon juice. All our vegetables deserve such treatment, to be a star and a soloist of sorts capable of carrying a magical melody on their own.
When strawberries grow up, which I imagine to be just as painful as my experience, they slowly grow plumper and absorb all they need from their rich soil and sunny skies. The light-green shades are replaced by a deep and complete red as they patiently wait to mature on the vine. To feel the warmth of the sun as I place the entire berry into my mouth and slowly chew its pure ecstasy. The juice slides down the back of my throat and sometimes down to the tip of my chin, and I am reminded of the warmth of the sun on my bare skin when I was a boy on that lobster boat. I can’t help but close my eyes for a moment, letting that warmth overcome me, holding back my tears as I am filled with joy in a blissful moment wishing my grandfather was standing next to me still.
The day my grandfather died, my father stuck that same pocket knife I scarred my finger with into his pocket as he said goodbye, kissing him and feeling the stubble on his face that felt so familiar to him and brought him back to his childhood, when he would snuggle in his lap feeling the same bristles. I placed two asparagus spears into his other pocket from crowns we had planted together as my little cousins danced and sang outside in the yard.