Friday, April 2, 2010


A Constellation of Comfort Foods

As difficult as it may be to come up with an exact definition, those with whom I have raised the question had no trouble understanding what I mean by the term “comfort food”. Recently, I began asking the question of listeners to my weekly radio program (call-in’s went on for three weeks !), as well as folks I met in my daily comings and goings. In each case I asked what food dish rang a bell in the happiness center of their brain, and why. In most cases, the answer was immediate and certain, usually accompanied by a story or two.
At its heart, the question of food involves family, history, geography, tradition and ethnicity. Mostly, I found that a true “comfort food” is usually simple, uncomplicated fare, whose great value arises from origins not associated with the kitchens of some culinary institute. A New England friend of mine summed it up when he said, “whenever I tuck into a feast of Dundee pudding, my ancestors sit with me at my table, and when we pull a steaming crock of baked beans, made with onions and salt pork and love from the oven, it’s my great grandfather who passes the salt.”
And so you see, it is a very personal subject, allowing of no dispute, and striking close to a person’s heart and soul.
If, among my respondents, there was one dish which rose to the top it was meat loaf. That should come as no surprise, because researchers with time on their hands, report the same thing. I also found that peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches scored high, as they do nationally. Children who grew up in the homes of depression era, or just plain farm-family parents remember with great fondness meals of bread and milk; my own wife is one of those. Like myself, many callers continue to be warmed by memories of coming home from school or chores to find a hot bowl of cream-of-tomato soup and a toasted cheese sandwich waiting.
Most people take a moment to think before answering so profound a question, but one local businessman, hard at a task in front of him needed no more than a split second: “hand-cranked vanilla ice cream on Sunday evenings”. When invited to give it more thought or add a second favorite, he stated flatly, “No, that’s it”, thereby underlining what I pointed out on the notion of the deeply-held certitude attached to the personal nature of food traditions.
People who grew up or have roots in other parts of the country reveal the geographic nature of food proclivities, such as a friend from Louisiana who grows absolutely poetic when describing his love for Gumbo, rich with real andouille sausage and accompanied by red beans and rice. (To which I say, “Amen !”) I grew up with a neighbor boy whose parents were immigrants from Hungary, the father a painter of scenery for the New York Opera House. Once, when visiting Sandor, I was invited to a table, at the center of which sat a huge, ornamental bowl filled with a sumptuous Hungarian goulash, redolent of the paprika seasoning which infused its mystical ingredients. In later life, I have tried in vain to duplicate that unforgettable dish which still claims a special place in my culinary soul.
I have a special interest in and affection for the Amish people, and the whole wide world of “Pennsylvania Dutch” food tradition. While they have some commonality, the two are not necessarily the same. That said, I greatly appreciate a chance to sit down to a Sunday roast long-and-slow-baked over a lake of blackened vinegar and dried cherry gravy, and served with mashed potatoes and sweet-and-sour red cabbage. And nothing gladdens my heart more than a side of Amish buttermilk biscuits covered with a layer of apple butter, and topped with Schmeerkasse, a creamed cottage cheese dear to the heart of Lancaster county farm folk. A large helping of sorghum-rich Shoo-fly pie, fresh from the oven not only touches my psyche, but never fails to enhance my sense of luxury and well-being.
Utah has its own claim to some notable food traditions, from deep-fried scones, which give a new definition to a word with a different meaning in the Scotch and English world, funeral potatoes and of course Dutch oven upside-down cake. Perhaps less-known is an old-time Utah dish composed of mashed potatoes smothered with chicken and noodles, or just plain noodles.
The long list of true American comfort foods includes, but is not limited to, Mac-and-cheese; turkey and stuffing; chicken noodle soup; eggs and bacon; hot dogs; hamburgers in all their myriad forms; fried green tomatoes; root beer floats; corned beef-and-cabbage; and if you have a touch of southern blood in your veins fried catfish and hush puppies, and certainly biscuits and sausage gravy with a side of grits and collard greens.
As for me, if really pinned down I have to vote for apple pie and cheddar cheese. (Three kinds of apples, and white cheddar, aged at least three years. Thank You) !

Known as “cranberry” or “October” beans to New Englanders, a serving of these marvels, cooked while still in the green state is a comfort food today, just as it was for Thomas Jefferson who also grew them at Monticello, an example of history and geography in every spoonful.

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