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 Joan wrote, “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 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 you.”
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.
Comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]
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.
Cal is a true comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood likes that matured into adult preferences. His eating experiences are defined by U.S. Midwest geography and by the cuisine of a certain generation.
For example, he 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 in nuts. This is meant to look like studded snow balls floating in a colored pond. Trying to visualize this, I’m certain I couldn’t eat it.
He 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. Now he enjoys a simpler pudding.”
In similar Midwest fashion, I was raised on meat, potatoes, and mushy canned vegetables boiled before serving. So many childhood meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and hoping not to get caught.
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 a tasting/eating adventure in Asia. I sweated my way through outdoor food stalls in 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” consisting of some strange phobias. She outlived two husbands and never had children. She also wasn’t much of a cook. At family potluck gatherings, she always brought her “signature” Pork and Bean dish. It was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans that contained cubes of pork fat. She added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The casserole was baked in the oven until warm. The onions were always “crunchy”. Children refused to eat it.
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 usual 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.
It was our friend Alec [who is part comedian] that gave the most graphic 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.”
My cousin Cal and I will never share the same food preferences. Nor should we. The important thing is that Cal and I are connected by the way our comfort food choices make us feel–enjoyably nourished, emotionally content, and loved.
Two recipes for opposing tastes, one sweet and bland and one well seasoned.
CAL’S TAPIOCA PUDDING
- 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
- 1 serving leftover rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Easiest rice cooking recipe: hack-1-making-perfect-rice
- Sauté 1 minced shallot in butter until softened. Add red pepper flakes or fresh chilis [optional].
- Add 1 or 2 eggs sunny side up to shallots. Turn over easy. Sprinkle with S & P.
- Slide eggs and butter from cooking on top of rice bowl. With 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 a less spicy version, leave out red pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.