Where Y’Eat: On Father’s Day, simple food rituals that bind

Jun 15, 2017

Father’s Day is this weekend, so of course, I have doughnuts on my mind, and not just any doughnuts. The doughnuts of my youth. The doughnuts with dad. 

It’s the big round puffy old fashioned glazed, the dark, gnarly twists of sugared crullers, the carnival of multicolored sprinkles and the maple frosted, which to the little kid version of me just seemed like the height of sophistication.  

I can still taste them, but as the years go by remembering the errand of actually going out to get the doughnuts has become more important. That’s because picking up a dozen doughnuts was a weekend routine in my childhood that turned into a ritual, and it was a ritual with dad.

It was the doughnut run, and it was a rare instance of pickiness for my father. He was usually pragmatic about food, unconcerned with brand names and unmoved by food trends. He didn’t voice a lot of strong opinions or share treasured old family stories around this recipe or that dish. It just wasn’t his style.

And yet, doughnuts were different. Even though we were just going for a dozen jelly filled or double chocolates to have around the house on a Saturday morning, it was clear, even as a child, that this was special.

We wouldn’t go just anywhere. We went to a shop all the way across town, about 10 miles from our house, an odyssey of an errand. I should say here that I grew up in Rhode Island, the biggest little state in the Union, which may explain my perspective on distances. The shop in question, by the way, is an independent of Rhode Island renown called Allie’s Donuts.

The trek there, however long it seemed, was always exciting because of the destination, and it was significant because it meant time with dad, one on one. On the drive, he’d tell stories, mainly about our family or his exploits before I was born. The doughnut run was downtime for him. The doughnut run was dad time for me.

Father’s Day does not have the same fanfare as Mother’s Day, and the holiday brunch or dinner out doesn’t have the same obligatory status. But while we think about dads leading up to the day, it’s natural to think about the rituals we’ve had with them. Not surprisingly, a lot of them involve food. In my family, I later came to realize, food was a framework, a way of sharing some father-and-son time without scripting it out, or making the affection seem too open.

This is one of the ways that food culture becomes personal, not just a reference point in cookbooks or fodder for a travel show. I like to think that if I’d grown up in my adopted home of New Orleans, that these rituals might involve the crawfish boil, the oyster bar or the po-boy shop. But, as it happens, it was doughnuts.

Dad time is different now. Alzheimer’s disease has turned the table on our relationship. He used to narrate our car rides, now I’m the one who tells all the stories. But we still have our rituals. And we’ll always have the doughnuts. For WWNO, I’m Ian McNulty.