My father is ninety-one-and-a-half years old, and still manages to get himself onto an Air France flight each November to spend three months of the winter with us in Paris.

He’s always had remarkably good health, and until a few years ago, used to thrill our daughter every year with his daily exercise routine: two or three backward somersaults performed in the middle of the living room rug — not the usual parlor game. We all loved it, he more than any of us, I expect.

Sometime after 85, he started having to cut back, dropping first one of those somersaults, then a second and finally the last one a couple of years ago, when a gradual loss of weight exposed more bone, and his backward roll began hurting his spine. But he kept up his long, daily walks, both at home– along the seawall near the house where I grew up near Long Island Sound — and in Paris — where he would regularly stroll along the central, tree-lined promenade near our apartment. He would start out near the Place de Clichy just below Montmartre, and walk east, past the metro stops at Place Blanche, Pigalle, Anvers, and only turn back at Barbes-Rochechouart, where the metro comes up from underground and rolls along on an elevated track.

Last year, his walks became less frequent and shorter, and this year, he was upset to find that he didn’t have the strength to make it much farther than a walk around the block. As the days passed, he found himself more and more exhausted, and after a month with us, could no longer try to blame it on jet lag. He finally let me call in the doctor in January, who quickly diagnosed anemia. Even after only a few days on an iron-rich tonic, he was feeling a bit more perky, and the last couple of days I walked with him back and forth to the metro stop at Pigalle.

He hadn’t had much appetite this winter either — unless I made some old family treat like fettucine, kneaded and rolled out by hand when I had the time, and made with my old hand-cranked pasta machine when I didn’t. One recent rainy, dank Saturday night in Paris, the night of the great snowstorm around Washington, DC — a day when we kept getting emailed photos from family and friends in the area, documenting the depth of the snow — I didn’t know what to make, but knew we all needed comfort food of a high order.

So I made a quick batch of polenta, the thick cornmeal mush that my father’s family lived on before emigrating from northern Italy very early in the 1900s. I made the polenta with a mixture of water, milk and leftover chicken broth, which gave it more flavor and protein, turned it out onto a round wooden board, and served it with leftover Bolognese sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

I didn’t tell my father what I’d prepared, and simply surprised him when I walked into the dining room with a big full moon of yellow polenta and placed it right in front of him. I cut it into slices, spooned the sauce on top, and let everybody add their own cheese. He ate two big slices, hungrily, and then went back for a third. It cheered us all to see him eating, with his old strong appetite, and clearly enjoying his food. So I filled his stomach, in the old way that I’ve been missing, and he filled our hearts.

Nearly as good, there was even some polenta left over, to be sliced and sauteed in butter, for the next day’s breakfast. Can’t ask for more.

Roast Beef Hash

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Nobody in my family ever talked about being thrifty in the kitchen, probably because thrift was so ingrained in the house I grew up in that wasting food — or anything else — was simply not a concept.

My mother, like her mother before her, felt it was positively sinful to throw food out. And she loved learning other women’s tricks for getting the most out of whatever they’d bought to feed their families. I remember when I was a teenager, watching my friend, Gina, cracking open eggs to make meatballs, and was surprised to find her using her index finger as a miniature spatula, to make sure every drop of egg white had been dislodged from its shell. My mother had never seen that particular trick, and when I told her about it, she adopted it there and then, only sorry to have wasted who knew how much egg white in her past.

My mother would practically weep if she discovered that something had gone off in a back corner of her fridge, and thrift is probably why she avoided having leftovers hanging around in the first place, since none of us much liked eating leftovers. She normally cooked just enough so that the four of us could finish every last bit at each meal; it kept her fridge empty of stray bits of food that she just might forget to set out a second time before they’d gone bad.

What did this thirst for thrift mean? Bacon at a weekend breakfast always meant bacon fat in a tall jar at the back of the fridge, to be used whenever, for sauteeing potatoes or adding flavor to a stew. A glazed ham on our holiday table meant an eventual ham bone, and without fail a thick, split pea soup flavored with that bone. Thanksgiving meant an eventual turkey carcass, and without fail, a huge soup pot filled with turkey broth, and eventually a turkey-flavored onion soup. An occasional roast beef ordered from Gabriel’s Meat Market on Bridgeport, Connecticut’s East Side, meant my favorite treat — my father’s roast beef hash.

Sometimes my mother would get the three main ingredients ready for him: cutting potatoes into small cubes, soaking them in two or three changes of cold water till the starch came out of them, and drying them on clean dish towels; dicing a couple of big onions; chopping the leftover roast into tiny cubes or grinding it on her old-fashioned hand-cranked grinder that she clamped onto our kitchen table. Her preparations meant that when he came home from work, supper could be on the table fast.

We still have the big cast-iron skillet that used to help give the hash its flavor and texture. My father would set it on the flame and get it hot, add a couple of tablespoons of bacon fat or freshly rendered pork fat to the pan, then dump the washed and dried potatoes into the skillet. As long as the pan was hot enough and the potatoes had been washed and dried, they would sizzle and sputter but rarely stick, and he would stand at the stove, shaking the pan back and forth to keep the potato bits rotating and cooking evenly. When they were half done, he’d toss in the onion and the meat, plenty of pepper and salt, any leftover juice or gravy from the roast, and keep the contents of the pan moving constantly, stirring and shaking the pan, until the onion had just begun to soften.

At that point, he’d use the back of a fork to press the hash firmly into a compact patty covering the bottom of the skillet, and he’d let it cook for a few minutes, until a tasty crust would form on the bottom. Then he’d take a spatula to loosen the hash, pop a big platter over the top of the skillet, and quickly turn the skillet upside down so the hash slipped out onto the plate. My brother and I liked to watch that step more than any other, not only because it meant dinner was ready, but because nobody could ever predict whether the hash would slip out neat and clean, or end up half stuck in the pan, eliciting a few choice words children were not supposed to hear.

I’m not at all sure that the neat, clean version of the hash tasted any different from the hash that stuck to the pan, but I always preferred the stuck version, spiced with a healthy pinch of frustration, as well as with the usual salt and pepper.