For Father’s Day, One Dad Asks ‘What Is Dad Food?’

Every year, as Father’s Day approaches and the gift guides suggesting $300 supercharged charcoal grill lighters and backyard pizza ovens roll in, I’m left wondering if I’m truly dad enough in the kitchen.

I do most of the cooking for my family. My wife is a public-school teacher with a relentless schedule who rarely has the will to make dinner. I, on the other hand, love to cook and, as my two kids frequently remind me, don’t have a real job. Yet, dads, avert your eyes: I do not own a Big Green Egg. I have never even used a 16-pound baking steel to make my kids sourdough pizza.

Blame it on my TikTok algorithm, but so many of the dads I see seem to be reveling in this profligate age of Dad Food, making homemade burger buns and subjecting spice-rubbed animal carcasses to long periods of indirect heat. Meanwhile, I’m wary of grills (too flammable!) and overwhelmed by gadgetry (the Bluetooth-enabled meat thermometer I received as a present three years ago remains unopened). I’m just trying to sneak vegetables into the pasta sauce without the kids’ noticing.

I had the sense that dads were cooking more than they once did, and this was true — to a point. We have come a long way from the dawn of dad food, when man discovered fire and the “Big Boy Barbecue Book” suggested in 1956 that their occasionally grilling steaks indicated a revolutionary shifting of gender roles: “Wives take it easy. All they have to do is make the salad and dessert.” ‌

But despite decades of sustained increase in the contributions by dads in the kitchen, moms — at least in households with moms — still did about three times the cooking and dishwashing from 2015 to 2019, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, and that was before the backsliding seen during the pandemic.

To me, the food that dads cook sometimes seems to have a performative quality that mirrored so-called dude food, which the author Emily J. H. Contois memorably describes in her book “Diners, Dudes and Diets” as “comfort food with an edge of competitive destruction.” A dad, after all, is just a dude with more responsibilities.

As the rise of the swashbuckling chef at the turn of the 21st century made cooking cool, dude food was a reaction to the cognitive dissonance men felt as they entered the realm of the home kitchen, Ms. Contois said. “The everyday work of feeding people was still viewed as feminized. For some men, that felt risky and they pushed back.” Dads seemed anxious to distinguish their food from moms’.

So as I spoke to dads of various sorts around the country, in an effort to better understand the actual state of dad food today, I was ready to be regaled with tales of sous-vide machines acquired, briskets smoked and sourdough starters meticulously tended — the kind of performative cookery undertaken when you don’t necessarily have to get dinner on the table five nights a week.

For the most part, however, I found hopeful signs about the future of fatherly cooking, not to mention some surprising evidence of my own culinary dadness.

Raymond Ho, a father of twin girls in Los Angeles, spoke lovingly of his daughters and of his many outdoor cooking apparatuses, including a Japanese binchotan grill, a Traeger pellet smoker and a 24-inch fire pit on which he occasionally cooks steaks that he dry-ages himself for 20 people.

But Mr. Ho and his wife, Stephanie, truly are a team in the kitchen, splitting weeknight cooking duties. His journey to this point confounded my expectations. Mr. Ho grew up in Hong Kong, and his father was the family cook, a rarity at the time, while his mother worked late running her flower shop.

“He would take me to the wet market to buy produce, fish and meat and then I’d watch him cook,” he said. “My mom did the rice, that was about it.”

Many of the dads I spoke to share in the cooking at least in part because their own fathers did not. The novelist Nathan Englander, who lives in Toronto with his wife, Rachel Silver, and their two children, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island. His mother worked full time and, aside from mowing the lawn and making the occasional omelet, did all of the domestic labor.

He has since abandoned that old-school model. “It’s not in the Bible that you can’t get off your keister,” he said.

Chase Weideman-Grant’s father worked such long hours that he was barely a presence in the house, not to mention the kitchen.

“Forget cooking, I don’t even really remember him eating a meal,” said Mr. Weideman-Grant, a fitness trainer who lives in the West Village with his husband, Cory Grant, and their two children. “Occasionally he would take a piece of bread with peanut butter and jelly, roll it up into a taco and call it dinner.”

But Mr. Weideman-Grant’s kids have two dads who cook, though he admits he’s the one whose food reflects the aspirational excesses of his (and my) generation of dad food. After all, we both came of age watching the proto-zaddy Jamie Oliver make spaghetti with arugula for his daughters Poppy and Daisy.

“Today before 9 a.m. I made them roasted vegetables three ways,” Mr. Weideman-Grant said — cauliflower with chile crisp, carrots with honey and sumac, and broccoli with lemon and garlic. Just as my frozen-corn-microwaving heart sank, he added, “Don’t worry, they’re not going to eat any of it.”

While none of the dads I spoke to embraced the tongue-scorching, meat-laden, colon-constricting meals trafficked by the dude-food avatar Guy Fieri, their cooking did retain some elements of masculine indulgence.

Take Mr. Englander, who might share the tasks of cooking with his wife but is the one whose cooking evinces a particular fatherly impulse I recognize in my own: to cook as if nothing else needs doing — permission slips and summer camp sign-ups be damned. Just as I will occasionally dirty seven bowls to make a Mornay sauce for mac and cheese when all the kids want is Kraft, for dinner Mr. Englander will make not just shakshuka, but also baba ghanouj and pita from scratch. “Rachel will remind me, ‘You do know the kids eat dinner every day?’” he said.

Paul Octavious, a visual artist in Chicago who runs an elaborate dinner series, raises a 3-year-old son with two longtime friends who are a lesbian couple. His boy has two moms, seven living grandparents and a father who embraces dad food’s tradition of fun and naughtiness.

“When I get the chance to cook, I try to make it as special as I can,” Mr. Octavious said, taking me through his latest venture into at-home dinner theater: the mashed potato volcano. “And I’m definitely the one who sneaks him McDonald’s fries,” he said. “His moms would never.”

Most of the men I spoke to are eat-your-veggies dads. Malcolm Livingston II, a former pastry chef at Noma who grew up in the Bronx, took this approach because he had worked in rarefied kitchens.

“You’re sourcing the best ingredients to produce the highest quality thing for people you don’t know,” he said. “So I’m damn sure going to do the same for my family.”

When his daughter was younger, Mr. Livingston packed silicone ice cube trays with various purées — carrots with vegetarian dashi, apples spiked with chamomile tea — and still makes sure every meal is rich in plants. It’s what his dad did for him. A martial artist and stuntman who’s approaching a quarter century as a raw vegan, his father made healthy food a priority.

“That’s dad food to me — an expression of love through food,” Mr. Livingston said.

Arjav Ezekiel’s parents, Indian immigrants who raised their children in Portland, Ore., each cooked for the family. His mother made curries with fried pomfret, the food of home, while his father handled the foods of the West: lobster thermidor, spaghetti Bolognese and burgers on the grill. Mr. Ezekiel owns the restaurant Birdie’s in Austin with his wife, Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel — he is the beverage director, she’s the chef.

She is often cooked out from work. So like his own mom, Mr. Ezekiel makes most of the meals at home. And like his dad, he will be the one to introduce his 6-month-old son to foods like dal, which are adventurous — at least to a little Texan.

But when there’s grilling to be done, a battle still commences. Ms. Malechek-Ezekiel is the expert, and misses it from her years cooking over smoldering wood at Gramercy Tavern. “Just yesterday Tracy was like, ‘Arjav, why do you get to do all the grilling?’” he said.

But he can’t help himself — “There’s just something about fire.” His inner dude-dad comes through.

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