BY RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.
This Father’s Day, as I enjoy brunch with my family, I must remember to be grateful for “hunger dishes.”
And, as a dad who — like many other dads — struggles to provide for his children while still finding time to step away from work and make memories, I hope someday my kids will be just as grateful.
Hunger dishes is the phrase that internationally renowned chef and humanitarian Jose Andres uses to describe those simple meals that made a lasting impression on his childhood.
I recently listened to Andres describe — on David Axelrod’s podcast, “The Ax Files” — his experience growing up in the small town of Mieres in northern Spain. Like a magic carpet, it transported me back 40 years to my own no-frills upbringing in Sanger, a dusty yet bountiful farm town in Central California.
Then, I thought about my own children — who are now 8, 11, and 13 and being raised in an affluent neighborhood 10 minutes from the beach — and how they might be missing out.
“I still remember the end of the month when there was not a lot of food left around home,” Andres recalled. “And many of the leftovers will be used for making the meals like croquetas, those chicken fritters that today I cannot believe I charge two or three dollars each.”
Anyone who has ever tasted the chef’s cooking — at any one of the more than 30 restaurants he now owns across the country in cities like Washington, Philadelphia and Las Vegas — would consider that a bargain.
“Those were the hunger dishes,” Andres said. “Those were the meals where, when my father was waiting for the next paycheck, my mother would be able to multiply what was left.”
And here’s the most delicious part of this story.
“It’s funny,” Andres said. “I never remember the big steak moments. But I remember all the dishes that my mother made in the last week of the month with almost nothing. And those are the dishes that sometimes attach me to my childhood.”
I can relate. One of my most cherished childhood memories is sitting on a counter stool in my grandmother’s kitchen eating my favorite snack: the Mexican version of a weenie rollup where the bread is replaced by a deep-fried corn tortilla.
Nothing I’ve tasted in fine restaurants in Paris, New York or San Francisco even comes close.
That’s because the dish was seasoned with my grandmother’s love and affection.
My other grandmother would often serve me a simple plate of refried beans and homemade flour tortillas that seemed, to a young boy, like manna from heaven.
I’m sure the same goes for the croquetas that Andres’ late mother whipped up in her kitchen, with just a touch of garlic, olive oil, and red pepper. As skilled as he is, he’ll never be able to exactly replicate the dish.
For me, the concept of hunger dishes reminds me of a simple life lesson that I too often forget during my frantic 60-hour workweeks. Our kids may like their electronics, daily Frappuccinos, trendy clothes, and pricey trips to amusement parks, but what they hunger for most is time. Simply time.
They want to spend time with their parents — until the moment comes, perhaps in their preteen years, when they no longer do. We know this. But it tends to slip our mind, as we get into the rat race of trying to work longer hours to earn more money to shower our kids with more stuff. There is no end to that madness, and “stuff” isn’t even what your kids really want. It piles up in closets until it’s given away to Goodwill.
So what do your kids want? See above.
Don’t miss my point. As fathers, we must take seriously our role as provider. I have no use for deadbeat dads who don’t pay child support or sponge off their wife’s income. But let’s not lose perspective. When you’re gone, if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets eulogized by your kids as a “good dad” — which is, by the way, the highest compliment a man can get — it won’t be because of what you bought them but because of the love, time and attention you gave them.
That’s what they’ll remember, because — when all is said and done — it’s the only thing that matters.
After all, hunger dishes may satisfy your palate at mealtime. But it’s how they feed your soul that can last a lifetime.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. His email is ruben@rubennavarrette. com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available on apps.