In Season: Comfort Foods
By Linda Brandt Tanner
From Radiance Winter 1997
At birth, when a newborn searches for the nipple to
soothe her or his entrance into the world, the exquisite connection between food and calm
is made, and we continue to seek that comforting pleasure for the rest of our lives.
Comfort food comes from our roots, our beginnings. Both
of my parents were intuitive cooks. By the time I was nine, I understood what it took to
prepare a tasty meal. My mothers bronze Thanksgiving turkey would rival any on the
cover of Gourmet magazine, and she coaxed volumes of rich, dark gravy out of birds
and roasts. I loved her crusty macaroni and cheese, twice-baked potatoes, and potato
salad. The last was made simply, with minced onions and parsley, tons of hard-boiled eggs,
and a touch of cider vinegar; it was bound together with Best Foods mayonnaise.
My fathers specialty was spaghetti sauce, and
making it was a ritual that began early on a Saturday morning. I can still hear the sound
of the shallow wooden chopping bowl wobbling on the drain board as he chopped volumes of
onions, garlic, and parsley. The sauce would simmer for hours on the back of the stove,
fogging up the kitchen window. It turned from bright red to a ruby-rich mixture of
Mamas put-up tomatoes, meat, wine, and herbs. My brother and I had the
self-appointed task of periodically dipping a hunk of French bread into the pot,
"just to see if its done yet, Dad." We didnt fool him for a minute.
My mother, father, and brother are all dead nowandoh, how I long for those
days again! For them, and the comfort of the good food we shared as a family.
In her recent book, Simple Abundance: A Daybook of
Comfort and Joy (Warner Books, 1995), Sarah Ban Breathnach says of comfort food,
"When the miseries strike and youre down in the dumps, food transformed by love
and memory becomes therapy."
"Food transformed by love and memory
is the combination of love and memory that makes its mark on our hearts. As I prepared to
write this article, I found that everyone I spoke to welcomed the chance to reminisce
about their favorite comfort food. As they spoke, a smile would flicker across their lips
and the fine lines around their eyes would soften as they looked off into space to
retrieve some long-remembered taste.
What I found is that our yearnings for comfort food tend
to be specific. We need comfort food to be gentle and yielding, to soothe the ragged edges
of our consciousness and fill the empty valleys in our hearts. Although we all know that
no food can really provide all of that, it is comforting to know that when the
times get tough, the tough get themselves to a mug of steaming creamy potatoleek
soup with nuggets of crispy bacon. (Now you know one of my favorites.) Comfort foods are
not required to meet current FDA or the Surgeon Generals guidelines; these
considerations get shelved as we reach for our favorite item. I didnt hear one
glassy-eyed sigh longing for "a crisp garden salad" or "a hot bowl of
chopped broccoli" in response to my queries. We may love these delicious foods at
another time, but we dont choose them as comfort food.
Comfort food frequently is soft in texture. We love
bread, rice, potatoes, grits, oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, turkey stuffing, chocolate,
soup, cookies, cakes, puddings. And when we crave comfort food, we want it in exactly the
form in which we first enjoyed it.
I noticed that although the food we choose to eat is
significant, equally intriguing are the tales around which the wish for comfort is
wrapped. I know that one of my daughter Lisas associations with comfort and security
has to do with Saturday night sleepovers at Grandma and Grandpas. She remembers
being cuddled on the couch while watching The Lawrence Welk Show. Grandpa peeled
chilled navel oranges with his pocket knife, and Grandma fed her the juicy little
When my soul needs comforting, I head to the Redwoods to
cook bacon, coffee, and toast on a wood fire in the morning breeze. The experience is
complete if a sassy blue jay steals some of my bread crusts.
Many of our recollections have to do with a source of
heatof physical warmth as well as a warming comfort. I recall as a fourth grader
running home for lunch in the pouring rain after doing poorly on an arithmetic test. I
arrived home to find a crackling fire and a hot bowl of tomato soup with soda crackers
floating on top. I changed into my flannel "goonie" (my familys name for a
nightie) and consumed the bowl of warming food, which I balanced on my tummy as I sat in
front of the fire. I still recall what an unexpected pleasure it was to find all this
waiting for me, to be taken care of, as if some fairy godmother had known just what I
needed. Today, I still remember the sensual pleasure of my cold legs inside soft flannel,
warmed by the fire. Sometimes I still reach for a flannel goonie to curl up and feel
comforted in, and if a fires glowing, all the better.
The only heat source in the home my friend Tom grew up
in warmed his clothes, toasted his back side as he dressed, and baked the cinnamon apples
he ate for breakfast. His comfort memory is linked directly to that kitchen stove and the
nurturing it provided.
It is not only the food that serves as the important
elixir, it is also the way in which it is prepared, the cup or bowl it is eaten out of,
and the place we choose to eat it. My husbands favorite supper as an eight-year-old
was soft-boiled eggs, buttered onion rolls, and a banana and milk, as company to his
Sunday night radio listening. With stockinged feet at the kitchen radiator and his back to
the fridge, he was kept company by Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and Edgar Bergen and Charlie
McCarthy. Today, after a busy Sunday, he often enjoys the same meal. I know that
metaphorically, his feet are on the radiator of his childhood.
Our quirks are as individual as our fingerprints when we
yearn for comfort food. The food we crave doesnt have to make sense to anyone but
the eater. What is nirvana to one, can be anothers "You ate what!?"
Velveetta cheese, mayonnaise, and smashed Fritos on a French roll used to hum for my
friend Harriet when she needed a treat. Our fourteen-month-old granddaughter, Sadie, loves
cottage cheese with basil pesto and a side of sliced bananas. My friend Dottie has a
grandson whose craving doesnt come under the category "quirky," but his
name for it does. When asked what she could fix him for breakfast one morning, he replied,
"Fix me some of those pushed eggs, Gramma." "Pushed eggs?" she
queried. "Yeah," he said. "You know, the ones you push around in the
"Quirky" could be applied to something I
enjoy. Sometimes I eat in the bathtub. Bathtub foods for me are particularly particular.
Apples, cherries, grapes, fruit in general. On hot days, a scented, tepid bath with a dish
of chilled Bing cherries does the trick. Now, in these winter months, I wrap my hands
around a mug of lemony chicken broth with a grinding of black pepper, and Im warmed
and comforted inside and out. Its a calming solution for a 3:00 a.m. spell of
Macaroni and cheese seems to be a clear favorite for
many of us. I heard similar longings for the childhood macaroni and cheese I used to eat,
and many different versions. Amazing, the complexities of macaroni and cheese. Boxed Kraft
macaroni and cheese dinner became a comfort food for my childhood friend Judy when
prepared by her daddy on the one night a week her mother worked outside the home. He
served it with the tight-lipped, unspoken attitude of, Well, if your mother didnt
we could be eating a real meal). Relating this story to me recently,
the day after her mothers death, Judy smiled through fresh tears at this bittersweet
Some remembered their favorite mac and cheese made with
homemade white sauce to which Velveetta cheese was added. Others were made with cheddar
cheese soup and a can of Aunt Pennys white sauce, creating a uniform
cream-all-the-way-through experience. My moms version was famous in her circle and
in our family. Let me pass it on to you. Boil 2 pounds of elbow macaroni, butter a Pyrex
deep-dish casserole, and grate tons of Colby cheddar cheese. Place a layer of cooked
macaroni in the buttered casserole, and then distribute handfuls of cheddar over the
noodles, top with generous slices of butter, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat
these steps to create three more layers. Finally, pour whole milk over it all, to within
3/4 inch from the top. Place in a 350-degree oven for at least 90 minutes, or until the
sides are a deep, dark brown. The center should be "squashy" and creamy-moist
with yellow veins of melted cheddar, the top cheesy and crustily golden. Get ready to dig
in. And slap the hand of any intruder who tries to lift off a piece of the cheesy shingle
of goodness before you do! An added pleasure of this dish is to fry up a hunk of it the
following morning for breakfast, adding a little milk to the pan while it heats. Comfort
food? Yes, maam!
Hot homemade soup is the tonic many of us search for. We
like creamy soups, like chowder, cream of mushroom, or tomato. And we love chicken
soup. My vote is chicken soup with matzo balls. I like it without any chicken meat or
noodlesjust golden-rich chicken stock, celery, carrots, onions, chives, thyme (no
dill), and plump matzo balls. Making this special soup is an integral part of the
nourishment it gives me. The rhythm of peeling, chopping, and stirring puts me in a
meditative state that seems to add to my enjoyment of the soup when I serve it later.
We now arrive at a food that gives comfort to just about
everyone. Sweets! Talk to dessert lovers about sweets, and their eyes glaze over. They wax
eloquent about the pleasures of cookies hot from the oven. Or raw cookie dough. Doughnuts,
pecan pie, warm berry pie à la mode, devils food cake with milk chocolate icing and
a glass of cold milk to accompany it. Or frosting roses, plucked off a slice of cake and
eaten first. Or the still-warm centers of just-baked cinnamon rolls. Chocolate lovers
spoke with quavering voices of making a cup of cocoa from scratch. The creamy milk, sugar,
cocoa, marshmallows, and vanilla. And they would fairly swoon at the mention of
marshmallow cream. Their eyes twinkled as they remembered sliding the melting marshmallow
in and out of their mouths on a spoon. My husband, Lee, loved his Aunt Esthers putachuchen,
his Yiddish word for a sort of yeasty cinnamon cake with raisins. My friend Bobbie,
now sixtysomething, still enjoys warm milk in a jelly glass, with nutmeg and a spoonful of
butter; this is what her father would serve her when she was ill.
Ive been trying most of my adult life to recreate
my first taste of blackberry cobbler, the one our family friend Lou Pyron made for me on
my tenth birthday during a campout on the Navarro River. She crushed sugar cubes over the
biscuit topping before baking it in a cast iron pot on the camp fire. We devoured it with
thick cream scooped from the neck of the milk bottle.
I long for just one more taste of my Grammas baked
rice pudding, a golden combination of white rice, cinnamon, nutmeg, soft plumped raisins,
and pockets of silken egg custard throughout. I loved the first spoonful, scooped out from
the edge where the butter rose and melted into clear golden pools, leaving lacy crystals
of salt on the surface of the custardy rice.
Comfort food can ground us and help us identify our
pasts. Personal habits and family customs create solid ties to our history, bringing those
who have passed close again for a moment, wrapped in the memory of a first bite of
buttermilk biscuit spread with glistening fruit jelly.
Ask your relatives and friends about their comfort food
memories. Celebrate these winter months by inviting them to a potluck meal. Ask each guest
to bring her or his own comfort food and the story of how it became important. Youll
learn a lot about the history and traditions of people you care about by sharing this
delicious, oddball, and often touching pathway into the hearts memory. Happy winter.
Stay warm and comforted. ©
LINDA BRANDT TANNER is one of a committee of passionate people currently
working on The Edible Schoolyard, a pilot project at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School
in Berkeley, California, which began in response to school lunchrooms closing down across
the country. Their goal is to teach youngsters respect for the planet and for one another
through on-site, hands-on experience in gardening and food preparation in a program that
will become part of the California schools curriculum.