Radiance Magazine Online

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 mother’s 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 father’s 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 Mama’s 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 it’s done yet, Dad." We didn’t fool him for a minute. My mother, father, and brother are all dead now—and—oh, 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 you’re down in the dumps, food transformed by love and memory becomes therapy."

"Food transformed by love and memory…" It 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 potato–leek 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 General’s guidelines; these considerations get shelved as we reach for our favorite item. I didn’t 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 don’t 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 Lisa’s associations with comfort and security has to do with Saturday night sleepovers at Grandma and Grandpa’s. 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 sections.

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 heat—of 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 family’s 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 fire’s 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 husband’s 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 doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the eater. What is nirvana to one, can be another’s "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 doesn’t 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 pan."

"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 I’m warmed and comforted inside and out. It’s a calming solution for a 3:00 a.m. spell of insomnia.

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 didn’t work (… we could be eating a real meal). Relating this story to me recently, the day after her mother’s death, Judy smiled through fresh tears at this bittersweet memory.

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 Penny’s white sauce, creating a uniform cream-all-the-way-through experience. My mom’s 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, ma’am!

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 noodles—just 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 la mode, devil’s 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 Esther’s 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.

I’ve 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 Gramma’s 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. You’ll learn a lot about the history and traditions of people you care about by sharing this delicious, oddball, and often touching pathway into the heart’s 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.

 

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