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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.