Monday, September 29, 2008

"Comfort Food"

Rainy Evening Comfort Food

"Comfort food".

We foodies like tossing around that descriptor. But what, exactly, IS comfort food? Surely if you asked twenty people, you'd get as many answers.

Most of us grow up with family favorites that became comfort food after we left the nest; simple dishes with silly names and everyday ingredients. There is nothing innately special about macaroni and cheese (home-made or otherwise), or grilled cheese and tomato soup, or that mish-mash casserole that mom made by browning some hamburger and opening about 7 cans wrapped with red and white labels.

My friend Michael's mother is famous for her "Yummy-Yummy Casserole." She makes this for him when they travel to St. Louis for holidays. She doesn't need to be asked; it's just assumed that at some point during their visit, "Yummy-Yummy" will take its place at the dinner table.

Michael got the recipe from his mother and gave it to me but I will probably never make it. Why? Not because it has, if my estimations are correct, about 17,000 calories per serving. And not because it's not delicious; I'm sure it's "yummy-yummy" as promised. But no matter how delicious it is, it probably won't be comfort food to me because it's not MINE. Devoid of the positive association of mom and dad, the home in which we were raised, or family holidays, comfort food is in the end, just food.

My mom's pork roast, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, on the other hand? I'd give anything to have her cook that meal for me just one more time. I'm not sure what I liked best about that meal--the dinner itself or the promise of Pennsylvania Dutch "potato donuts" made with the leftover mashed potatoes. My sister and I would take only tiny helpings of mashed potatoes with dinner to make sure there was enough left for the donuts.

Peggy's Potato Donuts
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup cold mashed potatoes
2 eggs, beaten
2/3 cup milk
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
oil for deep-fat frying

Combine first 4 ingredients in a mixing bowl.
Add potatoes; mix well.
Add eggs and milk; mix well.
Stir in the flour and baking powder, mix well, and then chill the dough for an hour or more.
Flour a pastry board and roll out the dough about ½ inch thick.,
Cut using a donut cutter or two different sized ring cutters. (I like making them small; they fry quicker and are less oily that way.)
Fry at 375*; fry doughnuts until golden on both sides, turning halfway through fying.
Drain on paper towels.
Toss in cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar. I like them just plain.

How I loved my father's "barbeque"! Dad froze leftover meat and ground it up later for stuffed grape leaves or to make his "barbeque". It was not really barbeque in any true sense of the word, because it wasn't grilled or smoked. It was more like a sloppy Joe made with leftover meat and a sweet sauce that he mixed up with on-hand ingredients. I don't remember ever eating "sloppy Joes" as a kid; certainly never the kind from a can. When I was eventually faced with sloppy Joe's on a hamburger bun at a friend's dinner table, they looked at me strangely when I said, "Mmmmm, barbeque."

I also remember begging my grandmother for "schnitz und knepp", a stew of ham, dumplings and dried apples that's probably never eaten outside of central Pennsylvania, the heart of the "Dutch country". I've never made it because it's more effort than I would undertake for something that only I would appreciate, and because I know in my heart it would never taste like hers.

Our versions of comfort food are not always tied to our ethnic backgrounds, but one thing is certain; comfort food and childhood are tightly interwoven.

When I was growing up in Philadelphia, my parents both worked full time so mom had a housekeeper five days a week, who cleaned and did the laundry and took care of my sister and me while my parents were at work or while they were away on conventions.

We had a succession of them over the years. They were all called "aunt". Aunt Marge, Aunt Lelah, Aunt Mildred and Aunt Betty. I remember them all, but I remember Betty and Marge most vividly and I remember them mostly for their cooking.

Marge was the first; she was the one that took care of me when I was a toddler. I was so young that I really don't remember any of her cooking. But my mom, newly married and an amateur cook, learned a lot from Marge. Mom's delicious cole slaw was from Marge's recipe and my sister and I still make it that way to this day. In fact, many of Marge's recipes graced our dinner table throughout my lifetime.

Betty worked for us in our later elementary school years and then into middle school. Betty was the queen of comfort food and in our elementary years we walked 8 city blocks home for lunch each day. What could have been better than a home-cooked meal after a brisk walk on a cold winter day?

One of my favorite fall lunches was one of Betty's best dishes. Fried apples and corn bread. Chunks of apple sautéed and caramelized in sweet cream butter, finished with a touch of cinnamon, and served with a wedge of hot-from-the-oven corn bread and a big, cold glass of milk. We could usually smell the apples and cinnamon from the base of the cement steps that led up to our kitchen door.

This afternoon, as I was cleaning the kitchen, I realized I had an abundance of apples that weren't going to keep forever, and the cool fall weather made me think of fried apples. So I cut two of them into chunks and tossed them in a skillet with some butter. As they cararmelized, I heard my son's footsteps on the stairs and wondered what on earth pulled him away from "World of Warcraft."

"Mom!! What is that SMELL????" he asked.

"Fried apples," I replied.

"Are they as good as they smell?" he wanted to know.

So I shared my small portion with him, and told him about Betty and the cornbread and walking home for lunch and the white German Shepherd on the corner named "Cherry" who I would pet every day on my way home. We chatted about my asphalt schoolyard and our spinster principal while we ate the warm, sweet apples. The rain dripped from the blossomless honeysuckle outside the kitchen window.

I promised him I would make apples and cornbread for dinner.

And so I did. I even made a version of dad's "barbeque" to go with it. I hope he remembers it and that it becomes his comfort food, too.

"fried" apples

Cornbread "not from a box"


"Barbeque" and cornbread

No comments:

Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.