How food brought a father and daughter together

I often dream of sugar cane. Our family home in Okinawa was built next to acres and acres of sugarcane, and by the late 1960s the huge fields were a vast playground for me and my big sister, Janet.

I also dream of machetes. Sweaty tanned men chased us with razor-sharp blades after we stole a few sweet stalks for treats. Each time Janet and I had to climb a wall in our backyard for our safety.

Little precocious girls, we cried and laughed as we ran to our father for protection. He was in the back, usually grilling burgers or steaks. At 6ft 4in our American dad was a giant on the island. The locals have never played with Glenn Barnes.

When we presented our ill-gotten possessions to him, he would cut off the outer layer of the cane, and the three of us would stay, leaning over next to the hot grill, sucking in the sugary juices. Then we would spit the pieces of fiber on the ground and, being the little kid that I was, I would greet the angry men in the fields.

My father, who worked mainly as a musician, was a cook at home. Our mom was busy running a successful nightclub, which meant she slept all day. It was during the Vietnam War, and the United States had a huge military presence on the island. Every night his club was filled with young men on their way to or returning from battle. I don’t think she ever cooked us a meal or even put us to bed.

Janet, left, and Jo in Okinawa in 1967.

(Jo Stougaard)

My father was the king of the house and the kitchen. Besides his garden burgers, his favorites included omurice (rice topped with an omelet), fried chicken, Okinawan pork belly, and classic tuna sandwiches. He would wake us up before sunrise and take us fishing nearby. I hated fish, but I loved these – often soggy – sandwiches made with tuna, mayonnaise and celery on soft white bread and wrapped in crumpled wax paper.

Our father’s 1969 “Chicken Pie Christmas Tree” is a family legend. We had to eat chicken pie for months, just so he could make a tree-shaped decoration for the front of the house. He punched holes in the center of the shiny little pie tins, then passed twinkling lights through them. Decorating was the hit of our neighborhood – Takahara Heights – that year.

Then, in 1972, our parents separated.

Divorce is hard. International divorce is brutal. Our father got custody and sent his daughters halfway from Okinawa to Los Angeles to live with his parents in the wealthy city of San Marino. But we were mixed-race island girls and were just too much for our aging grandparents to deal with. New arrangements should be made.

A man is holding a camera over a black and white photograph.

Jo Stougaard’s father in Okinawa.

(Jo Stougaard)

Then, to our surprise, our father accepted a job in Scotland (his mother was from the Maxwell clan), where he met and married his second wife, Mandy. Janet and I were therefore placed in the Masonic Home for Children in Covina, California. My sister lived there for seven years and I “served 10 years,” as I liked to say. The sprawling resort, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, is still there today (and serves retirees).

Not a moment went by that I did not long for my father – I was only 7 when we parted ways. I called him dad and continued to do so as an adult. Over the years we wrote letters to each other and he sent packages of Scottish produce (usually shortbread), but what I wanted most was him.

A black and white photograph of a father and his daughter on a merry-go-round.

Jo Stougaard with his father at Disneyland in 1966.

(Jo Stougaard)

Our grandparents, our legal guardians, did their best. While we were at the Masonic Home, we vacationed with them in San Marino. Dad and Mandy have visited several times, and my sister and I took a trip to Scotland when our brother, Greg, was born in 1980. But the truth is, my relationship with my father was broken for decades. As a young girl (and young adult) I couldn’t understand how he could leave me and my sister and start a new life in Scotland.

In 2002, I did the hard part. I took a trip to Scotland to confront my father and ask him to apologize. It was one of the most difficult times of my life and I put it off until the day I had to return to California. We sat down together and I said, “You have to apologize for leaving me at home, daddy. You just have to do it.

He did. We cried. We have started again.

From there, I visited him often, sometimes two or three times a year when I found a cheap flight. Scotland was in my blood and more importantly my father was in Scotland.

A father and his daughter, with his arm around him.

Jo Stougaard with his father in Scotland in 2006.

(Jo Stougaard)

I think back to our emails from that 2002 visit and each was about food, with “must try” recipes and links to cooking videos. When the Lee brothers released their “Southern Cookbook” my dad became obsessed. He sent me a copy and, 5,000 kilometers apart, we cooked it together. On April 22, 2008, he emailed me and said, “Run – don’t work – on cookbook page 498 and try the cornbread! I have done this twice and we just can’t stop eating it !! ”

We spent Christmas 2016 together at his home in Scotland and had the best time to recreate his infamous 1969 Chicken Pie Christmas Tree. This time around I found the used pie tins on eBay.

A father and his daughter hold hands in front of a Christmas tree.

Jo and papa potpie Christmas in Scotland, 2016.

(Jo Stougaard)

My father was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer the following year. In early June, I flew to Scotland to be with him and help Mandy. She had just brought him home from the hospital, and he was weak and confused. I hugged him and he smiled when I told him I would cook for him. He said a low “I love you” and squeezed my hand tightly.

After weeks of tasteless, prescribed porridge in the hospital, I knew my dad was ready for real food.

My mother-in-law was so busy taking care of my father that I wanted to cook meals for him as well. Mandy was the love of her life (they had been together for 45 years) and cooking was something I could do while she handled the many pills, medical supplies, forms, phone calls, caregivers, nurses and doctors. Caring for my dad was a stressful full-time job.

When Greg and Janet arrived our family was under one roof for the first time in years. Dad was confined to a hospital bed in an adjoining room, but we were together. We missed him at the table every night, but we missed him more in the kitchen.

He didn’t eat much in the last few weeks of his life – usually a few spoonfuls at each meal – but I spent every day cooking, hoping to fill his kitchen with love.

I brought a saucepan up to her room and blew gently on the steam to diffuse the aroma, hoping to get a reaction. Nothing pleased me more than when he quietly asked for something to eat.

A bowl of chicken in broth and a plate with spinach, avocado and tomato.

Jo Stougaard’s chicken made for his father in June 2017.

(Jo Stougaard)

The first night I made pork carnitas. Dad grew up in Los Angeles and loved the Mexican food stalls on Olvera Street. I also made rafute, the Okinawan pork belly we ate when I was a kid. The meat is simmered in sake, soy sauce and broth, and I could tell he enjoyed the memory of the food.

Chicken fried steak with gravy has always been one of our favorites. But Mandy and I were worried that the crispy breading would be hard for him to swallow, so I suggested a creamy “country chicken” which I made in his pressure cooker. The result was a chicken so tender it didn’t really need to be chewed, and I served it with a classic southern sauce.

The day before he died, my father was so weak he could barely speak. After a few bites he asked, “The chicken … how did you cook the chicken?” It was almost a whisper, and I was surprised, briefly, before explaining:

“I used chicken thighs, dad. You taught me that they have the most flavor, and I let each piece of chicken brown before turning it over. You taught me to take a step back and be a patient cook, ”I reminded him, adding:

“I added onions and garlic and scraped off the brown bits from the pan. Then I pressure cook the chicken in the broth. You taught me that making time to cook for the family is one of the best gifts in the world. You taught me that food is indeed love.

It was our last conversation and his last meal.

Here in LA, I still cook with my dad every day. There’s a little framed photo in my kitchen – a photo of his village kitchen in Bridge of Weir, Scotland. It hangs on the wall next to ladles, spatulas and a myriad of small mixing bowls, exactly where it belongs.

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