comfort food: n. food that is simply prepared, enjoyable to eat, and makes one feel better emotionally. [Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers]
My father was the fourth born of six children, but the only boy. His oldest sister made him an uncle, for the first time, when he was ten years old. That nephew, my cousin Cal, is 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, she wrote to say, “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. His favorite dish from Bess [his mother] is creamed tuna and peas on saltine crackers. The bar is not high. Cal also enjoys canned baked beans on buttered white bread. I use the vegetarian beans, but he thinks they are “pork”. I prefer my tuna and peas on toast points, thank you. We look forward to new ideas from your blog.”
I have no desire to eat 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 taste preferences arise or even change. It must be tied to our senses, our experiences, and certainly to our emotions. Thoughts of home, family, love, hate, sickness, allergic reactions, holidays, sadness, grief, punishment, or contentment can trigger a taste memory–by longing or loathing.
Cousin Cal is truly a comfort food creature, formed by his mother’s cooking, honed by childhood tastes that matured into strong adult preferences. His eating experiences are limited to the USA Midwest, highlighted by cuisine of a certain generation.
Joan says he is obsessed with Jell-O. Jell-O with crushed pineapple and nuts, Jell-O with strawberries, bananas and nuts, and, at Christmastime, Jell-O made by rolling cream cheese into balls covered with nuts somehow meant to resemble snow balls in red gelatin. I’m trying to visualize what this looks like. Less certain I could 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 vegetables from cans. Uncountable family meals spent spitting vegetables into a paper napkin and then [hopefully] into the garbage without being caught. Now, thankfully, my food preferences cut a wider swath simply because we moved overseas in the 1980s. Spices, particularly fresh chilies, in ethnic cuisine from India, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore happily reformed my taste buds, and more.
Life became an eating adventure that changed my definition of comfort food forever. It should awaken my senses with spicy flavors, stirring memories of literally sweating my way through an Asian food stall.
Cal and I are as opposite as any two people could be in what excites us at the table. He eats his vegetables “well cooked”, his fried egg sandwich only on white toast, and of course the Jell-O thing.
As Joan and I talked about Cal’s food likes and dislikes, other family eating lore tumbled out. She told of my father’s second sister, Dorothy [Aunt Dot], who suffered from a “nervous condition”, outlived two husbands, and never had children. She had some peculiar phobias and was not much of a cook either. To family potluck gatherings she always brought her signature Pork and Bean dish. This was prepared by opening several cans of baked beans containing cubes of pork fat. Then she added raw onions, catsup and molasses. The whole mess was baked for awhile in the oven. The onions were always “crunchy” and hated by small children. Perhaps everyone else too.
We lost track of time as I took notes and enjoyed being with cousins I don’t see very often. Cal called Joan’s phone to ask if she had forgotten about him and his lunch. Later that day she sent an email with a few more thoughts ending with, “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 favorite sweets are offered.
I asked extended family members to talk of their comfort foods when we were at a reunion last summer. Choices ran the gamut of American food tastes. Friends from other cultures, including my daughter-in-law who is Russian/Latvian, offered a more varied palate. But it is this quote, from an overseas American friend, that provided the most surprisingly unique definition:
“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.”
It seems unlikely that Cal and I will ever share similar food tastes, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that we are linked by the way our choices make us feel. Satisfyingly nourished, emotionally content, warmly loved.
Two recipes; one sweetly bland and one very 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 rice, any flavor, placed in a bowl. Leftover rice works well.
- 1 or 2 eggs cooked in butter, turned over easy for a few seconds at the end.
- Sprinkle eggs liberally with red pepper flakes or fresh chopped chilies. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Slide eggs and any remaining oil from cooking on top of rice. Take two knives and cut eggs into pieces so yolks run into the rice.
- Garnish copiously with chopped cherry tomatoes.
- Eat with a Chinese ceramic spoon.
- Optional garnish: equal parts chopped garlic and ginger, browned in olive oil.
For a blander, easy to digest version, simply leave out the chilies, garlic and ginger. Just eggs on rice. Very nice.