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Friday, April 15, 2011

Comfort Food

The other night, when it was cold, drizzly and rainy, I came home and, even though I was weary and tired, nothing else would do but to fix myself a grilled cheese sandwich and a hot cup of tomato basil garlic soup.

Comfort food.

I'm not exactly certain what it is about comfort food that is so comforting. I suspect it's a combination of the relatively effortless nature of cooking it, and the soft, easy nature of eating it along with the pleasant, warm memories the food itself evokes.

Rainy days and grilled cheese sandwiches combined with a cup of hot tomato soup is a meal reminiscent of a dismal Saturday afternoon of my youth. The sight, the smell, and the taste make me feel like I'm 9 years old again and in my mother's kitchen.

Of course, the grilled cheese sandwich of my youth would not be made with the whole wheat, multigrain bread I now use. Neither would it be filled with a combination of sliced provolone and Swiss cheese.

My mother's grilled cheese sandwiches were made of Wonder Bread (which was so light and so white you wondered if it was really bread) and a thick slab of Velveeta Cheese cut from a large rectangular block of the stuff that was wrapped in thick plastic and came in a yellow box.

The soup? Had to be made by Mrs. Campbell and shipped to the grocery store in a round metal can - the one with the smiling rosy-plumped-faced kid, holding a spoon - which was purchased at the local market, brought home, opened, and then dumped into a pot and mixed with an equal can of fresh whole milk.

It was "Mm-mm Good!" In some ways, it was better than my own homemade Tomato Basil Garlic Soup which has to be cooked and then pureed.

For most of us, comfort foods are far from gourmet and generally epitomize home cooking. They invoke feelings of nostalgia, safety, and security.

For some people, that could be as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or it could include a little more complicated fare like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, brisket pot roast, fried chicken, baked beans, chili, chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, chicken and dumplings, spaghetti, beef stew and good ol' tuna casserole.

Dessert? My memory takes me immediately to bread pudding, rice pudding (with lots of cinnamon on top), banana creme pie, or hot apple or blueberry pie with a thick scoop of ice cream melting on top. 

My mother had several "specialties" which she only made at certain times or for certain reasons.

Salmon Pie was her Lenten specialty - a Friday evening treat at the end of a long week and after attending bi-weekly, mandatory Stations of the Cross.

She served it with her special "white sauce" - a little something she picked up when she was in Home-Ec class and applied to a variety of resourceful adaptations.

Because of the Great Depression, my mother had to leave school when she was in the 9th Grade. She went to work in one of the many garment factories in Fall River, MA, so she could earn money for the family.

It broke her heart, she said. There was no missing the sadness on her face whenever she mentioned it.

She loved Home-Ec class because there she learned how to cook "American" food - tuna casseroles, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and chicken pot pie - which, to her, was downright exotic compared to the Portuguese peasant food she learned to cook at home.

It became a symbol of the hope and promise of new life, an embodiment of The Great American Dream, served up on a 12 inch plate.

It began, she said, when she was taught to make "creamed eggs". This recipe, for some reason, was reserved for those kids who were not feeling quite 100%. You couldn't be Really Sick for my mother's Creamed Eggs because you were required to help with the assembly.

While the eggs were boiling, she began to make a 'white sauce' of equal parts butter and flour, salt and pepper, which she stirred and cooked together until it formed a thick yellow paste. Then, she'd add the milk and stir slowly, always in a figure-eight in the pan, which was always the task reserved for the kid for whom this treat was being made.

By the time the white sauce was thick, the eggs would have been boiled. They were immediately bathed in cold water, cracked, and then opened. The white part of the egg would be carefully separated from the hard yellow and then sliced into bite sized pieces and added to the white sauce.

Meanwhile, the bread would have been toasted and thickly buttered so that the Creamed Egg mixture could be poured on top.

Then, the fun part - always reserved for the kid who was the intended recipient of this epicurean delight - pushing the hard yellow yoke through a sieve to make a delicate sprinkle of garnish on the top.

The whole affair is not finished, however, without a very light dusting of paprika and a few garnishes of chopped parsley.

Oh. My. Soul!

I didn't realize until I was much older that this dish tastes so good because it also carried my mother's hopes and dreams.

I suppose I did a similar thing with Mac 'n Cheese and Shepherd's Pie - both of which I learned in the home of a classmate of mine who was of Irish and English descent.

The Mac 'n Cheese is always - always - made from scratch (never that orange stuff in a blue box), using my mother's basic white sauce. The cheese is shredded and mixed in with the cooked macaroni. The whole thing is sprinkled with buttered bread crumbs and baked in the oven.

The Shepherd's Pie is always magnificent in its simplicity. I always make it using equal parts of ground lamb, beef and pork because. . . well. . .because that's the way I was taught. Sauteed onions and garlic mix with the ground meet to make a glorious aroma.

The whole thing gets topped with a thick layer of mashed potatoes and then baked to a golden brown perfection.

The house absolutely reeks of love and care and comfort.

Whenever our kids would come home from college or, even now, when I haven't seen them in a while and they are coming over for a visit, their first request will be for Mac 'n Cheese or Shepherd's Pie.

Nothing made me happier than when one of our daughters asked if I would come by and teach her how to make Mac 'n Cheese. Seems as if her own daughters had been asking for some of Nana's Mac 'n Cheese.

Made my heart sing!

I remember one Pentecost Sunday when one of the inner city congregations I was serving at the time decided to celebrate this great but often neglected Feast. The church celebrated its identity as a multi-cultural, international community, so nothing would do except to have a festive Pot Luck International lunch out on the lawn after the service.

We delighted on stewed goat, and Jamaican meat pies, and Rice and Beans and a whole host of delicacies from the West Indies and West Africa, along with a huge vat of collard greens, Mac 'n cheese, Three Bean Salad, Fried Apples and great, black cast iron pans of corn bread.

It was Ms. Manning, however, the quintessential New Yorker, who delighted us all by bringing what she called "Island Food".

"Island Food?" we asked, looking at the glorious pans of meat loaf and pots of mashed potatoes.

"Yes," she said, demurely, "Long Island, Staten Island, and the great island of Manhattan."

One of these days, I'm going to whip up a batch of my Grandfather's Double Stuffed Potatoes. It was the hit of the neighborhood of my youth.

He had his own kitchen and oven in the garage where my Grandmother insisted he cook up his own meals of the fish he had caught. She didn't want him underfoot in her kitchen and she didn't want him smelling up the house with his fish.

My Grandfather would begin by baking the potatoes he had grown in his garden. While they were baking, he would saute onions and garlic (also from his garden) and then add ground beef, which was pretty inexpensive in those days.

After the potatoes were done, he would cut them open, scoop out the baked potato and add them to the mixture of cooked, ground beef. Then, he would fill the shells up with the mixture, sprinkle some shredded cheese on top, and put them back into the oven to bake to a golden brown.

I don't know how it happened - perhaps the glorious odors of the Twice Stuffed Potatoes began to waft out to the neighborhood - but suddenly, our yard would be filled with kids, all clamoring for a potato of their own.

We didn't need plates or utensils. We just ate them from our hands, licking our lips and wiping the grease from our faces and hands on our clothes.

There was always more potato than ground beef, but that was okay. Everybody always had enough to eat. It was a miracle akin to the Loaves and Fishes.

Funny. My Grandfather seemed to make these Double Stuffed Potatoes when one of the shops or mills or factories were on strike. We never knew who was poor or hungry in my neighborhood. There always seemed to be some neighbor who was fixing up something amazing for everyone to share.

I have always been struck by the fact that Jesus wanted to be remembered not by the miracles he performed or the words that he said or the things he did.

Jesus wanted to be remembered whenever we break bread and drink wine together.

Whatever comfort food we are enjoying, we can take additional comfort in the fact that Jesus promises to be with us. Always. When there's food and in those times when there isn't enough to eat.

In return, He only asks us to remember Him in those times when we are being comforted by food and drink and memories and love.

Comfort food.

Wiki defines it as
"foods consumed to achieve some level of improved emotional status, whether to relieve negative psychological affect or to increase positive.. . . However, the term is meaningful not as a list of particular items, which will vary considerably from individual to individual, as well as culturally and by situation and emotional trigger, but as a psychological category of behavior."
Whatever that means to any particular individual, there isn't anyone who doesn't know what it generally means - even if it ultimately means that we are necessitated in seeking a little postprandial relief from an antacid of individual, preferred choice.

It means home. It means comfort. It means love. It means family and friendship. It means memories, hopes and dreams.

It means food for the body and the mind as well as the heart and the soul of what it means to be a human being in the human family.

There's nothing more delicious than that.

18 comments:

Tracie Holladay said...

omg food porn

:evil snicker:

You had me at mac & cheese...

:D

Happy Friday!

BP said...

Thanks for the evocative post! (I second-third-whatever the many motions for you to write a book...)

It's funny that you and I, whose mothers were raised in VERY different parts of the country (mine in rural south Texas; left school similarly after 8th grade), had the same "special treat." Mom called hers Goldenrod Eggs (though she often added some grated sharp cheddar--another kidly duty--to the white sauce), and it remains MY kids' favorite. It was one of the first meals they learned to make, but it never fails to secure a dinner visit from either or both if I tell them I'm having it, say, this coming Friday... :-)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I just reread this piece, Tracie, and realized that I am drooling. ;~0

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

BP - Sometimes, my mother called them Goldenrod Toast, but, I suspect they became "Creamed Eggs" because she was highly allergic to goldenrod..

She also made something called "Hot Dog Stew" - OMG how I hated that. Stewed tomatoes, a can of Veg-All, a can of String Beans and hot dogs, cut up in bite sized pieces.

Vile stuff, that. We only had it when my father was on strike. YUCK.

JCF said...

The stuff in the box CAN be pretty good...

...IF you use it as a base. And then soup it up w/ extra cheese, spices, extra pasta (and variably, ham, salsa, spinach, mushrooms, sour cream, etc etc etc)...

...and then bake it. Delish! :-)

[And anything/EVERYTHING tastes good above 7000 feet. That's the rule of backpacking!]

the cajun said...

OK, you made me cry, made me remember my grandmother's comfort food recipes (which I still make sometimes), remember how comfort foods are similar from culture to culture, and made me hungry.

Grandma's Mac & cheese could harden arteries in minutes, but there were never any leftovers.

Thanks for this. Just lovely.

susankay said...

BP is right -- this is trans-regional. My mother (2nd and 3rd generation Danish-American) from Iowa provided the same treats. We added "pizza" on English Muffins as well.

I love stories of "Americanization" . One favorite is that of a guy I used to work with named Pollino but very Jewish. I asked about Jews in Italy and he explained that when his Polish grandfather came through immigration he picked a good "American" name so he wouldn't sound like a "foreigner".

And now I'm wanting mac and cheese.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Well, you never had "home made" Mac 'n Cheese. Not mine, anyway. ;~)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Cajun - One of these times, I'm going to pick you up at Dos Locos, sacrifice the Crab Legs, and we're going to have an evening of cooking our favorite Comfort Foods.

Wouldn't that just be GRAND?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Susankay - I love those stories, too. Patrick Cheng calls it 'hybridity".

Pizza on English Muffins? OMG.

JCF said...

JCF - Well, you never had "home made" Mac 'n Cheese. Not mine, anyway. ;~)

???

I don't understand how this post responds to mine (I didn't---wouldn't---disparage your M&C in the slightest, Lizbeth. I'm sure it's Fab...and may I consider this an invite? ;-p)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You got it, JCF.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

Ah, white sauce. That was the first thing my mom taught me to make. The thing about all comfort food is that it can be glorious or awful - depending on how it's made. I'm a bit shy about offering my homemade creamed spinach, as the name might have traumatic associations of institutional food. But when people try the homemade variety (flavored with a little nutmeg and sauteed onion), they usually can't get enough.

MarkBrunson said...

My mother made wonderful meatloaf Wellington and mushroom sauce. Mac and cheese, of course (homestyle). Beef stew. Vegetable beef soup with okra. Hamburger steak. At Easter, she made these little sweet yeast bread bunnies with icing. My birthdays always had homemade chocolate cake with homemade chocolate frosting (square - no round cakes here, thank you; too hard to frost). Spinach salad with vinaigrette.

Geeklet said...

I think my grandma makes a similar sauce, kind of. Flour, milk, maybe some butter. It turns out a chunky-ish white. Very plain - we call it "milk gravy", but I love it on toast. No eggs, though. Except if she makes them on the side.

And Mary-Caulifower, is there any way you could give me such a wonderful sounding recipe? I want to add more greens into my life. :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary C - Yes, I'm thinking of that godawful "hot dog stew" my mother used to make. YUCK.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Mark, you're making me drool

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Geeklet - I agree. Mary C, give us that recipe. It sounds wonderful.