To Nourish and Protect

by Jake Fernberg; Photography by Carole Topalian 

When I was growing up, my dad was terrified the moment I set foot in the kitchen. Whether this was just general anxiety about the adventures of a precocious first born or something brought on by a specific fear that my dad had, I don’t know. But that dread was there, I remember that.

This concern came to a head when I was about six or seven. My dad was in the kitchen preparing stew (a winter favorite derived from our family’s brisket recipe), and I had just recently been promoted to the crucial role of sous-chef. If memory serves, my dad even folded and sewed one of his aprons for me so that I could look the part. It was a big deal.

With the brisket roasting in the oven, we set about preparing the other parts of the soup. I was needed: there was broth to pour, celery to clean, and potatoes to peel. I exceeded at those tasks, and was thus called upon to chop those now-peeled potatoes.

I don’t really recall slicing my finger open, but I definitely did it. Excuses abound: it was probably the first or second time I had held a knife, a peeled potato is slippery, I was seven. There was a lot of blood, but I wasn’t in pain.

My dad noticed the bleeding first, and he freaked out. He had probably pictured this outcome—blood on a cutting board, dinner potentially ruined—every time I so much as used a utensil; now his nightmare had come true. He turned off the stove (a gas burner—this dedication to safety always sticks in my telling of the story) and rushed me to an urgent care (it was a deep cut, but not that bad), crying all the way (I was crying too, on account of disappointing in my debut as sous-chef).

After a good prognosis—I would not lose the digit—and a few stitches, we went on our way. When the stitches healed, and after some persistence and promises that I would not cut my fingers off, I was right back in the kitchen with my dad, albeit a bit more mindful of how I cut root vegetables.

I also left that experience knowing that my dad would do almost anything to keep me from harm’s way. That, to me, is the value at the core of cooking: we are trying to nourish and protect those we love. Those values are there in the outcome and the process. They were there with my dad, trying to nourish me with both the knowledge of a familial recipe and the (really delicious, credit due to the recipe creator) stew itself, and valiantly trying to protect me from my own lack of fine-motor skills.

I haven’t cooked with my dad in over a decade—he passed away when I was ten—but I still hold close those memories and values from our kitchen. Case in point: a few weekends ago at a Christmas party, I made latkes for a group of friends I really cherish. A friend of mine offered to help in the kitchen, and when I gave him potatoes to peel, the first thing I told him was to hold the spud in his palm and to always peel away.

That drive to protect is instinctual now; and much of my work this past year at Edible Columbus has been to protect, nourish and educate. I’ve really enjoyed it.