by Tessa Vanderkop

My father was a monster by anyone’s standard. But he was a monster who could cook.
Born and raised in Indonesia, he could often be found with mortar and pestle in hand, blending spices for an Indonesian Rijstafel. This process would take days of preparation—garlic, fresh ginger and turmeric, candle nuts, fish paste, coriander, lemon grass, coconut milk—spices used in magical combinations to create a dizzying array of fragrant dishes.
This multi-day preparation was a ceremony that catalyzed what little good there was in my father. Shopping began the weekend before, when the four of us kids would load into the car to go across town to Toko Toet, an Indonesian grocery store. He walked into the shop like he was walking into a country of his own, and the shopkeeper, who knew him well, greeted him like an old friend. They spoke Malay, a language I couldn’t understand but I could detect a rare gentleness in my father’s voice as he spoke.
Three days before the big dinner, he would start preparing the meat. Garlic was chopped, ginger finely diced, soya sauce, hot chili paste, and lemon would be added to a large bowl. He’d cut the chicken and beef into cubes, then add the meat to the marinade and leave it for the next few days in the fridge.
My father’s moods were impossible to predict, forever fluid. What was okay yesterday, might not be today. Two days before this dinner, there was a shift in my father’s mood. It was the spoiled fruit this time. “Wasted money,” he screamed waving a fistful of my mother’s beautiful hair in his hands as if it were a trophy. My sister ran at him like a prize fighter, her small fists clenched in fury. I watched from the bedroom, as he effortlessly flung her down the long staircase. She tumbled downward, her long blonde hair spiraling, pinwheels over and again, like a rag doll. I wanted to help her, make sure he hadn’t killed her, but instead, I curled into the smallest of balls, quiet as a mouse, barely breathing,
Once his rage was spent, my father would recover himself, as if nothing had happened. My sister’s broken arm would be a horseback riding accident, the scarf my mother wore around her head became a fashion statement.
And then the cooking would continue. “You can’t rush this,” he would say, looking at me over his glasses, as he continued to chop, pulverize, blend, and stir. He would move around the kitchen with ease, turning, twisting, reaching, putting a pinch more of this, of that, tasting for the richness of flavor, ensuring it was just right. He was like a conductor bringing an orchestra together, so lost in the moment, and so intent on culinary perfection. I can’t help but think the process of cooking Rijstafel helped gather the tiny goodnesses that somehow still existed in him, despite everything.
He always invited neighbors and friends to these dinners, people who never saw his other side. He would sit at the head of the table and help his guests navigate the exotic meal. “This goes with this, don’t let that get mixed up with that. That’s right,” he would say with a soft smile. I often prayed that someone might offer, “This is delicious, thanks John,” before he felt the need to ask, “Did you enjoy that?”
I worried that the silence or the answer might break him. If it was a genuine, “Yes,” he looked like a small boy having pleased his difficult, and demanding parent, and an almost childlike smile would cross his face. If guests played with their food, his face would fall. It would almost make me forget seeing my sister tumble like a rag doll down the long staircase two days earlier. Or my mother’s hair hanging from his fist. And so much else.
These dinners, I suppose, were good memories. They were the only times I recognized the human in the monster, the few times I could feel something other than terror, and I imagine those dinners were as close to normal as I imagined normal might be.

Tessa Vanderkop is a writer from North Vancouver, British Columbia. In her spare time she loves to ski and is helping to end the legal trade of ivory in Canada.

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