Today is my father’s birthday. He was born in Glasgow in 1917, so it would be unrealistic to expect him to still be around today at 101. In fact, he died in 1981 of post-operative pneumonia (and other complications). I rarely indulge in personal tributes here, but I would like to honor my father on this day. When I spoke the eulogy at my mother’s funeral I followed my absolute principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (nothing but good is to be spoken of the dead), and I will do the same for my father. We had our disagreements in my teen years and beyond, but that is the past. He is dead and so is the past. In fact, when he died we were estranged, but I can rectify that with memories that I value. For both good and ill I am my father’s son. My son was born long after my father died. Otherwise, I might have been more perceptive about fathers and sons. I understand now. Several times I have written the following:
Fathers and sons are a powerful force of nature. Get between them only if you do not value your life. We are permitted to fight with one another — NO ONE else is.
Requiesce in pace, pater.
Both sides of my father’s family were from the Shetland Islands, with his mother being the most recent transplant to Glasgow from Lerwick. His father was an undertaker whose chief occupation within the profession was breeding pure black horses to pull hearses. He told me that his father used to use horse medication on himself (mostly ointments for joint pain), because he thought they were stronger, and, therefore, more effective. My father was not especially forthcoming about his family, but he did tell me that his uncles were ship pilots on the Clyde, which may have been what led him into the Royal Navy.
My father joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1935 at the age of 18, and served on RN ships, starting as a midshipman, in 1937. Before the war he had sailed to China (as part of a diplomatic mission to Shanghai), India, and Australia, where he got his general taste for wandering the world (which I inherited and passed on to my son). In Shanghai he got four tattoos that were enormously distinctive in those days and in my childhood. Now, every teenager gets a tattoo somewhere, but in my father’s youth they were exceptionally rare, and the mark of a sailor because they were typically only done in Chinese ports. His tattoos were of the white ensign, a fouled anchor (RN insignia), a dagger piercing his forearm, and one other I forget. My sisters may remind me. These were not the modern tattoos done with tattoo guns and bright colors (with topical anesthesia). These were done with bamboo needles with homemade ink smeared into the holes made by the bamboo. By the time I was a boy, they had mellowed and softened in color (a mottled dull blue with bits of red). Yet, they were his hallmark as a sailor. I knew of no one else in my childhood who had tattoos. When he dandled me on his knees or held me by the hand walking in the street when I was a little boy those tattoos stuck in my mind.
During the war he served on many ships in many famous actions. He was an officer on a frigate during the rescue of troops at Dunkirk in 1940, served on convoy duty in the Atlantic, and was part of an auxiliary fleet involved in the sinking of the Graf Spee in 1939 when the war was just beginning. He was shipmates with the Rev. Ken Loveless who became a well known figure in morris dancing circles in the 1960s. I did not know until I was a morris dancer that my father was a button accordion player until I began playing in 1972. I practiced on an old box for weeks in my bedroom, and when I was ready, I went down to the living room to play for my father. When I’d finished my limited repertoire he said to me, “let me see that.” Strapped it on, and reeled off a dozen morris tunes. Naturally, my jaw dropped. He had been the practice musician for Loveless when he trained some sailors in morris dancing aboard ship during the war. He had vaguely mentioned “a chap from Oxford” who taught sailors how to dance during the war when I first started dancing but did not go into detail. I know now that it was a painful memory because the ship was sunk by U-boats with great loss of life, and he had been demobbed with injuries a few weeks earlier. He must have believed that Loveless died in the torpedo attack. Certainly all the morris-dancing sailors did. But . . . Loveless survived in the water for many hours after the attack. I did not discover this until after my father’s death, and wrote to Loveless about it. His reply was incredibly moving and still brings tears to my eyes. I wish I could have brought these two shipmates together in life.
It was because my father was not afraid to travel after the war that I was born in Argentina (and that I grew up in Australia). In 1944 he was discharged from the RN with injuries as a lieutenant commander and joined the Merchant Marine for the remainder of the war. At the time he was a certified naval engineer, and his main job was managing ships’ boilers – a critical role in the days of coal-fired steam ships. After the war there was a huge surplus of labor with all the soldiers returning, and no work for a naval engineer. He pottered around London for a while doing odd jobs with one of my mother’s uncles, but then, hearing that there was work in Argentina, took ship for Buenos Aires: at the time speaking not one word of Spanish, and having no job to go to in Argentina. In time he worked as a factory engineer for the Swedish Match Company, and also as an engineer for Shell Oil.
Back in England in the 1950s he worked briefly for the recording branch of EMI, also as an engineer, and enrolled as a medical student at King’s College of London University. He took what in those days was called the first MB, the pre-clinical part of the medical degree involving anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry, but, with a young family living in penury on the south coast of England, he was unable to finish the clinical practice, and so switched to Spanish for the completion of his B.A. Then he took a number of jobs in secondary schools, before taking the plunge and moving the family to South Australia on assisted passage. He became a chemistry teacher at Gawler High School. This is the staff from 1958. My father is front row second from right (click to enlarge):
When we lived in Australia my mother was the weekday and Sunday cook of the family, but on Saturdays my father took over. His staples were Argentine spaghetti and tuco (similar to a Bolognese sauce) and curries with rice. Sometimes he got more creative. For Burns Night he produced a haggis, made fairly straightforward because our local butcher slaughtered his own sheep and so could conjure up a sheep’s stomach, lungs, and whatnot. My father sometimes made an Argentine tortilla (something like a frittata) for an evening snack, and if I was quiet while he was cooking, and asked nicely, he would give me a (small) slice. Once – and only once – he made ravioli from scratch with a filling of lamb’s brains and spinach. I went into more detail about this side of my father here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/fathers-day/ There I gave a recipe for tuco. Here I’ll give you ravioli with sheep’s brains. His recipe came from the copy of El Libro de Doña Petrona we had next to our copy of Mrs Beeton, the only two cookbooks in the house all my childhood years until we siblings started buying my father exotica. One year, for example, I got him a book on making various curries using personal mixes of spices rather than the commercial curry powders which he had used up to that point.
After Australia we moved back to England, and my father’s cooking expanded somewhat with the availability of more ingredients. Indians and Pakistanis in the local market in Slough sold spices by the pound, and so we had multiple jars in our larder of coriander, cumin, turmeric, poppy seed, fenugreek, and whatnot for curries. I was not much of a cook until I went off to Oxford and after my first year as an undergraduate, when I ate in hall, I had to fend for myself in the kitchen in a shared flat. My father never actually taught me anything about cooking directly. I did watch him cook all the time, however. What he did teach me more than anything was to be fearless and creative as a cook. I saw him making his own pasta for ravioli on the kitchen table, so it did not seem like such a big deal to me. He left me with the general attitude about cooking: “Yeah, I can do that.” There was an element of hubris in there as far as my father is concerned, and with me too. So what? As many have said, “Better to aim high and fail, than to aim low and succeed.”
For these ravioli you will need to make your own pasta, so go to the HINTS tab for the basic recipe. This is my recipe, not my father’s and not Doña Petrona’s. It’s pretty much the same, however. The absolute secret is in the freshly-grated nutmeg. I’ll call it Papa’s Ravioli anyway, for sentiment. (He was known as Papa in our house). You must have a very big pot to boil the ravioli in. They need to be boiled very quickly in ample water.
1 lb sheep’s brains, soaked in cold water to cover for 2 hours, outer filament removed
extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
1 lb minced pork
8 oz spinach, sliced thin
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and black pepper
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano, plus extra
pasta dough (see HINTS)
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a simmer and add a little salt. Add the brains and poach them for about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook slowly for a minute or so until softened. Add the minced pork and continue cooking, stirring regularly, until it is no longer pink (about 8 minutes). Add the spinach and mix all the ingredients well in the skillet. Cover and cook 15 minutes, then remove the lid, stir, and let the mixture dry a little. You want it still to be moist, but not sodden. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Either use a food processor (which I use), or use a kitchen knife to chop the cooked mixture from the skillet along with the brains so that it retains its texture, but is thoroughly mixed. Add the cheese and season to taste with nutmeg, salt, and pepper. I overdo the nutmeg because I think it makes the dish. You decide how much you want.
Roll out the pasta dough into 2 thin sheets. Lay 1 sheet of pasta on a floured place and place rounded tablespoons of the filling at regular intervals on the sheet. Lay the second sheet of pasta over the first. My father used to have a special wooden lattice for this part. I make do with a long wooden ruler. Press down on the pasta between the mounds of filling (horizontally and vertically) until you have even rows and columns of furrows. Run a pastry wheel along each furrow, and separate the individual ravioli. Let them dry a little while you heat the water.
Bring about 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Once the pot is on the boil add the ravioli quickly. Pay careful attention. Fresh ravioli will cook in no more than 2 to 3 minutes. As soon as the ravioli are al dente, drain quickly and serve immediately. We used to eat them as is, but now I drizzle on a little olive oil and some extra grated cheese.