comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary]
My father was the fourth of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister, Bess, made him an uncle, for the first time, when he was ten years old. That nephew is my oldest cousin, Cal, who turns 84 this month. He doesn’t see so well anymore, yet still spends several hours a day at his law practice, serving clients he continues to outlive. His wife of more than 60 years, Joan, is one of my favorite people. She says that Cal has never been motivated by food or by his appetites.
Shortly after my first story was published on this website, she wrote and said, “I am actually doing a bit of cooking. Going out to eat has lost some of its charm. My efforts are very basic, as Cal doesn’t like anything fancy. He enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are ‘pork’. His favorite dish from Bess [his mother] is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. As you can see, the bar is not high. We look forward to new ideas from your blog.”
I have never eaten creamed tuna and canned peas on crackers, toast points or anything. But Cal’s preferences started me thinking about the notion of “comfort food”. There is no single explanation for how our food preferences arise or change over the years. Yet the taste of certain food is tied to our experiences and emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness, or happiness can trigger a taste memory–of longing or loathing.
Cousin Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into the same adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.
Cal is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O filled with crushed pineapple and nuts or Jell-O filled with strawberries, bananas and nuts. At Christmastime, something special; Jell-O with cream cheese rolled into balls and covered with nuts. Somehow, this is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Just trying to visualize, I’m almost certain I couldn’t eat it.
Cal also loves sweets. Chocolate pudding, cupcakes, or butter cookies like Aunt Bess used to make. Joan wrote, “Tapioca pudding is his favorite dessert. His mother made it from scratch, separating the eggs, beating the whites stiff, and folding them in after it had cooled somewhat. I make this from scratch when I see pigs fly by the window.“
In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and over processed canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many meals spent spitting vegetables quietly into a paper napkin, hoping not to get caught.
Thankfully, my food preferences began to cut a wider swath in adulthood when we moved overseas, to Singapore, in the 1980s. Spices and chilies in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds and palate.
Life became an eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls because of the heat and humidity plus the spices in whatever I was eating. It changed my definition of comfort food forever.
As Joan and I compared Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family food lore tumbled out. My father’s second sister was Dorothy [Aunt Dot], who suffered from a “nervous condition” expressed by some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. Nor was she much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. This was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans with cubes of pork fat. She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. Everything was baked for an indeterminate time, then served. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it. Possibly adults, too.
Joan and I lost track of time, talking and laughing about family food foibles. Cal called to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. She left, and later sent an email, “Cal is such a Prussian! The trains must run on time even if they have nowhere to go. However, upon seeing the glorious cupcakes you sent home to him, he was easily placated.” You have to love a man who softens when sweets are offered.
I surveyed other family members and friends for their comfort foods. Choices ran the normal gamut of American food tastes–cheese, pizza, ice cream, popcorn, chocolate, nothing unusual. Friends from other cultures, and my Latvian daughter-in-law, offered more variety in their comfort food desires.
But it was our friend, Alec, who gave the most graphic comfort food descriptor. “My comfort IS food. I love to have my mouth FULL. A bite that causes the cheeks to protrude like two small Buddha bellies is a sign of bliss. I am comforted by eating with my hands…likely linked to Neanderthal kin who subdued dinner with their bare hands. There is nothing more satisfying than having a chokehold on a stuffed burrito or pinning the buns of a burger into submission before taking an oversized bite. Wrestling with my food gives both the victor [me] and the vanquished a sense of exhausted satisfaction, after the battle.”
Food and people are subjects for great stories. Because our life paths diverged, cousin Cal and I will never share similar food preferences. Nor should we. What is important is that we are linked by the way our food choices make us feel–nourished, content, and loved.
Two recipes, one sweet and bland and one very well seasoned.
CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING COMFORT FOOD
- 1/3 c. granulated white sugar
- 3 T. minute tapioca
- 2 ¾ C. milk
- 1 egg beaten
- 1 t. vanilla extract
Mix first 4 ingredients in saucepan and let sit 5 minutes. Cook on medium heat. Stir constantly until it reaches a full boil. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla. Cool 20 minutes and stir. Makes 4 servings. Eat warm or cold. Top with seasonal fruit if desired.
WENDY’S SPICY EGGS-ON-RICE COMFORT FOOD
- 1 serving rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Leftover rice works well. Link to easiest rice cooking: hack-1-making-perfect-rice
- Sauté 1 minced shallot in butter until softened. Add red pepper flakes if desired.
- Add 1 or 2 eggs sunny side up to shallots. Toward the end of cooking, turn over easy. Sprinkle with S & P.
- Slide eggs and any remaining butter from cooking on top of rice bowl. With edge of spatula or knife, cut into eggs so yolk melts into rice.
- Garnish copiously with chopped tomatoes.
- Eat with a spoon.
- Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger, browned in olive oil.
For the less spicy version, leave out red pepper, garlic, and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.