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Suzanne Perez Tobias: Bringing family together with food and a song

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, July 5, 2012, at 6:17 a.m.

Growing up, I rarely cooked.

My interest in food was limited primarily to asking, “What’s for dinner?” or “When’s dinner?” or occasionally stirring a simmering pot of something on the stove so I could sneak an early bite.

The reason was simple: Both my parents — my German mother and Cuban father — are fabulous cooks who plan meals days in advance, chop like chefs and value speed and efficiency in the kitchen.

So I grew up thinking every kid enjoyed international dishes like rouladen, aroz con pollo, tostones or Konigsberger Klopse, along with classic American meatloaf, fresh Georgia peaches and seafood from the South Carolina coast. All you had to do was stay out of the way and show up for dinner.

What a life, right? I had no idea.

Somewhere along the way, thank goodness, I did learn my way around a kitchen. I love reading food blogs, watching cooking shows, trying new recipes and recreating old family favorites, which my children appreciate.

So now when my parents come for a visit, as they did recently, our kitchen gets a workout. And the house smells … well, you can imagine.

Divine.

One day last week, after buying too many mangos that ripened all at once, my mom tried to persuade my son to eat a couple — or five — after swim practice. Jack could manage only one, so I decided to make some mango salsa with the rest.

“Have you made that before?” Mom asked as I fetched the iPad to look for a recipe.

“No,” I said. “But it can’t be that hard, right?”

She smiled and nodded, and kept reading the paper.

I quickly found a Bobby Flay recipe for mango-cilantro relish, which required just a few ingredients we had on hand, and I got to work squeezing limes and dicing mangos.

My dad, meanwhile, was at the stove crafting his signature breakfast tortilla out of hash browns, eggs and a symphony of spices.

As he buttered his special “tortilla flipper,” a ceramic dish hand-painted with flowers and the phrase “Para Volver La Tortilla,” he reached behind me for a spatula and whistled a tune I didn’t recognize.

“What’s that song?” I asked.

“I’m walking behiiiiind you, on your wedding daaaaay,” he sang. “You never heard that one?”

No, I said, shaking my head.

So my 80-year-old dad kept whistling, chopping, seasoning and sauteing. We all cooked side-by-side for several minutes — Dad whistling, me stirring, Mom chopping cilantro, peering over my shoulder and literally patting my back.

“Well, look at you!” she said as the mango relish came together. “Good job, girlie!”

Dad didn’t remember all the words to that song, he said. So I looked them up later:

’Cause I’ll always love you,

Wherever you go,

And though we are parted,

I want you to know,

That if things go wrong, dear,

And fate is unkind,

Look over your shoulder,

I’m walking behind.

I’ll never cook black beans or huevos rancheros in my kitchen again without humming that song.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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