Monday, June 27, 2011

Comfort Foods: The Comfort of Cooking and Talking about Food

When I created the Eat Sunday Dinner Questionnaire, I created a list of ten questions that I thought would allow participants to talk about their relationship to food in a personal and revealing way.  The first question in the ESD Questionnaire is "What is your favorite food?" and it's amazing how many times responders will discuss comfort food in their answers.  ESD's Hong Kong correspondent Christine Jagolino said her favorite food WAS comfort food "because it makes people happy".  What is Christine's favorite comfort food?  Sweet mac and cheese, although she says it's not something she can eat very often.

For Vi Thuc Ha, the ultimate comfort food is dim sum.  She grew up in Chinatown and regularly walked to  dim sum restaurants and delis "at all hours of the day and night".  Today, she says she loves all kinds of dim sum--"the cheap and the fancy avant-garde."  Daniel Marlos didn't name his favorite comfort food in his questionnaire, but said his favorite kitchen untensil was the spoon "because you eat comfort food with it."  Chef and photographer Fridgeir Helgason used the power of comfort food to create a sense of place at his 2010 exhibition of photographs from his homeland.  He prepared and served an amazing Icelandic lamb stew for visitors to eat as they viewed the work.  With a background in both cooking and photography, Fridgeir knew that serving one of the great comfort foods of his homeland would help viewers engage with his photographs in a deeper way.  It worked.

I find comfort in many different foods for many different reasons.  There are the classic comfort foods of my childhood-- country ham, fried apples, biscuits and gravy, white beans, and salmon cakes.  I love avocados and sand dabs because they remind me how great it is to live in California.  I love pirogi because it reminds me of my friend Daniel (especially when he makes them for me!)  I love chocolate-covered candied orange peel because it reminds me of a springtime walk in Paris.  I could go on and on.

For me, a comfort food does one of two things-- it can remind me of a great feeling or moment from the past (country ham is my madeleine) or raise my spirits in an almost magical way.  I'm sometimes surprised by the foods that bring me comfort-- as in the case of The Magical Powers of Brisket or The Best Sandwich I Ever Ate-- The BCT.  Often these aren't foods that I'd normally consider comforting, but they bring me comfort at a moment when it is most needed.  Once they produce that comforting feeling, they are added to my mental list of "comfort foods".

There are some foods that are comforting only when I make them myself.  Carol Penn-Romine described a similar feeling in her ESD Questionnaire when she discussed her love for cooking her mother's beef roast, saying "I love both the results and the procedure itself-- the repetition of those steps gives me a feeling of connection."  I know how she feels.
A recent batch of milk gravy on top of a piece of homemade bread covered with fried chicken slices, June 2011.

For me, the most satisfying food to cook and eat is milk gravy.   Don't get me wrong. I love milk gravy.  I especially love sausage and gravy and often order it in promising looking diners.  But what I really love is making gravy myself-- in my own kitchen with my grandmother's cast iron skillet.  I don't care if the fat needed to make the gravy comes from the drippings of sausage or fried chicken.  To me, it's the gravy that matters, not the fat source.  I love stirring the raw flour into the shimmering fat and crackings that remain in the bottom of my grandmother's skillet. I love the soothing feeling of the spoon sliding through the thick creamy gravy after I add the milk.  This is the feeling of home.  Maybe it's because stirring the gravy was often my job in my mother's kitchen.  Maybe it's because the zen-like act of stirring gravy cannot be rushed, but I know that if I keep the flame under the pan just right and keep stirring in a slow and rhythmic circles, gravy will eventually magically appear.

This moment of transformation is very much like the process of printing a gelatin-silver photograph.  You carefully rock the seemingly blank piece of photographic paper back and forth in the developer and after a few long seconds, the latent image magically appears.  Whether I'm making a photograph or a meal, it's the anticipation of the transformation that really matters.  What's comforting is not the beauty of the photograph or the deliciousness of the gravy, but the knowledge that at any moment, transformation can occur and that life can, against all odds, change for the better.

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