Chef-author Greg Atkinson for years believed that the last thing his late brother Flip ever ate was a spoonful of banana pudding. And he was chagrined. Peanut-butter fudge, however, with its hint of salt and its undertones of bitterness, is an old family favorite.
FOR A TIME, I believed that the last thing my late brother Flip ever ate was a spoonful of banana pudding, when in fact, it was a spoonful of peanut-butter fudge.
My brother was a chef and a painter whose culinary endeavors tended to steer clear of the house-wifey kinds of dishes that involved boxed cookies and pudding mix, so I was baffled by the whole banana pudding thing. I am not entirely sure how I got the story wrong, but I can say that for as long as I believed he had ended his culinary journey through life with a spoonful of banana pudding, I did not rest easy. Peanut-butter fudge, with its hint of salt and its undertones of bitterness, is an old family favorite that I still make on occasion; and it seems like an acceptable last bite. But banana pudding would never do. As far as I knew, my brother didn’t even like banana pudding. Perhaps he had purchased too many bananas.
It seemed sad to me that his last morsel of food would be a spoonful of something he made just because he had to use something up. Peanut-butter fudge was a different story. Taking time to make peanut-butter fudge is taking time to indulge yourself, to have some fun. It’s an act of pure, unadulterated pleasure, much more in keeping with my brother’s character.
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My second-to-oldest brother, Flip was quieter than my other brothers. While those two fought almost all the time, Flip focused instead on reading science fiction and painting ships. He started painting at an early age and filled dozens of store-bought canvases. His early paintings were recognizable ships like clippers and schooners that cut through the storm-tossed waves of well-rendered oceans. But over a period of years, his paintings grew more abstract and the ships sailed out of sight. The landscapes became increasingly intricate forays into fantastic, otherworldly realms, and more than one moon now occupied the skies.
Eventually he abandoned the prefabricated canvases and worked on enormous canvases he stretched himself over wooden frames he built in his studio. The paintings took months, even years to complete. In his formative years, Flip grew somewhat thoughtful, pensive and removed. Even before he dropped out of high school and moved in with his friends, he would retreat to their garage apartments for weekends and indulge in psychedelic drugs. But when he was still at home, he was an island of calm, a wellspring of understanding and a kind of fortress for me and my other siblings. Each of us loved spending time with him, and I always felt safe, unjudged and unperturbed in his presence.
One of Flip’s crazier pursuits was playing the piano; this was crazy because he had never read music, nor did he have what most people would call an ear for music. Instead, he sat down at the piano and touched the keys in a random order that gradually unfolded into rhythms and melodies of his own devise, sounds that moved in chaotic and colorful patterns as dreamy as the waves and clouds that covered his increasingly abstract canvases.
Long after he moved away from home, he would return to my parents’ house late at night, after he left the restaurant kitchen where he worked, and he would play my grandmother’s upright piano in my mother’s living room. It woke them up, they said, but it made them happy, too, to hear him back in their house playing the old piano.
His own home didn’t have a piano. Instead, it was mostly a studio filled with his enormous canvases and mobiles. He learned to work a circular saw and cut fantastic crown moldings for his rooms, crafted furniture from wood. Some of his works were absurd; a pterodactyl-shaped mobile painted green and orange flapped its wings when you pulled a string. Other works, like those fantastic landscapes, were almost sublime. He filled his house and his restaurant with art and laughter, reggae music and marijuana smoke, homemade jerk chicken and peanut-butter fudge.
Then one day, before he set out on a fateful trip to rescue his dogs from the pound, where they had been interred for vagrancy, my brother made a batch of fudge; he sampled a spoonful from a corner of the platter on which it had been left to cool. After he got the dogs out of the hoosegow, he let them in the back seat of his old, black Cadillac Seville, settled into the driver’s seat, lit a cigarette, and died. The burned-out cigarette was resting on the seat beside him and reassured us that he did not struggle or clutch his chest in pain.
On the flight home from my brother’s funeral, I dreamed that my late grandfather was giving me a tour of the grand old hotel where he had worked. I was familiar enough with the hotel in my waking life, but mostly from the outside. It occupied an entire city block before it fell into disrepair and was torn down.
In my dream, I was thrilled that my grandfather was allowing me to see parts of the hotel I had only heard about. Up we went climbing the Spanish-style wrought-iron staircase and down the dark-paneled halls. My grandfather, although he had died when I was a baby, seemed instantly familiar. He seemed overjoyed to have this opportunity to show me around.
“I want to see the kitchens,” I said. “Of course, of course,” said my grandfather. He seemed to know all about my interest in cooking, and in a flash I knew he’d been following my life and career as long as I had lived. “But first,” he said, “I have something else to show you.” We were headed down one of the high-ceilinged hallways. The doors had those transom windows above, and I could hear music and laughter from the guest rooms.
“Your brother’s been painting,” he said. Then he opened one of the doors, and a vast room, flooded with light, was filled with colorful canvases. And though I couldn’t see him, I knew my brother was there.
Greg Atkinson is a Seattle-area chef, author and consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.