Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Comfort Foods 

My friend Barbara talked about comfort foods in her blog Tigers and Strawberries, mentioning such yummy goodies as mashed potatoes, oatmeal, chicken soup, and congee.

Pho would be a comfort food for many Vietnamese, I'm sure.

My grandfather's comfort food was speck - rendered pork fat - spread over bread, although when he was really stressed or in a really good mood, he'd scoop it out of the tub with a knife and lick the knife clean.

Most of my comfort foods were bread related - thin crispy knaeckebrot scraped with a thin, thin layer of sour cherry or plum butter, or thick slices of sourdough rye farm bread (what we called graubrot), sprinkled with water and topped with sugar sprinkles or grated chocolate, or dense chewy soft pretzels with a fierce German mustard, or equally dense and chewy bagels with cream cheese and a thin thin slice of ham.

I never found the right kind of knaeckebrot in the US, so that comfort food is a distant memory, and one I never shared with others.

I never did get into my grandfather's favorite comfort food, but I liked his back-up comfort food. Every night, before bed, he'd cube and fry a potato, and add an egg, and that was our bedtime snack - our "keep away the boogies at night and let us wake up safe the next morning" food. If it was really cold outside (the snow was deep enough we had to use the second floor snow door, or even the escape hatch in the attic), he'd pour chicken broth over it to keep us warm through the night. His house was old - no electricity, no running water, no piped in gas or propane. The only heated room was the kitchen, with its woodburning stove, so we spent a lot of the winter in the kitchen.

My grandmother had differnt ideas about comfort food (just for a point of reference, when I speak of my grandparents, I always mean my German grandparents from my mother's side of the family. My father's parents disliked us intensely because we weren't full blood Kiowa Apache, so we had very little to do with them. The cousins were good, though.). She liked to grate potatoes very thinly, mix them up with an egg and a bit of grated onion, and fry thin lacey patties of them directly on the stovetop. She could do this because it was a wood burning stove, and we scraped and scrubbed the stovetop with these coarse black bricks three times a day to keep it smooth and shiny. As soon as the pancakes were done, she'd roll them around soft fried apples that were sitting in the window sill to chill. Whenever she felt the need for a treat, or had gotten bad news, she'd go into the kitchen and fry herself a pancake, and if I followed her in, she'd make me one, too.

The baker down the street would always bake me a small loaf of graubrot all to myself when I helped him shape the breads before school each morning, and sometimes, when I wasn't looking, he'd slip a windbeutel or one of his tender, chocolate dipped baerentatsen into my lunch box - and those always made me happy to find at lunchtime. His bearclaws are nothing like the heavy yeasty things sold as bearclaws over here. His were delicate and golden sponge cakes, like giant madeleines (and I do mean giant - they were larger than my hand, but shaped like a madeleine, scallops and all), and he'd dip the "claw" end into chocolate and then carefully position sliced almonds for "claws". Dipped into hot chocolate, there is no better comfort food. Since no one I've found in the US makes these, when I want them, I have to make them myself.

When I left Germany for my journeyman, he gave me a jar of his sourdough starter so I could always have a piece of home with me. I still have that starter, schlepped all around the world.

My mother immigrated to the States, and I followed. I was introduced to my father's family - Kiowa Apaches from Oklahoma, and to fry bread.

That's become a new comfort food - chewy fry bread straight from the hot oil. Topped with Buffalo Breath Chili, soft beans, diced tomatoes, and shreds of greens, it's a communal comfort food. At least that's the way I saw it, because my cousins and I would sit cross-legged in the grass under a table and pull pieces off to eat as we giggled and hid from the grown-ups who didn't like me because I wasn't full blood. My cousins didn't care - I was exotic, had an accent and come from across the ocean.

When I grew up, I did the same with my children - we'd hide from the relatives under a picnic table somewhere and pull pieces of Indian Taco off the central plate. Eh, we did that at the State Fair, when we wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle, too.

Living in that weird part of the country that belongs to no particular region, I learned to make a mess of greens as comfort food. That and a bowl of red, or a pot of beans and ham hocks with cornbread were staples among my friends' families, and being the foodie I am, I incorporated all of that, too. Avocados and eggplants, turned into guacamole and baba ganoush, were comfort foods among some friends - and tabouli.

When I was known as the Chinaberry Child, we had a neighbor family on the other side of the duplex who were recent immigrants from Mexico - and the mom taught me to make flour tortillas by patting them out between my hands into perfect circles, and to have burritos for breakfast filled with spicy refried beans and eggs. Manuela, the little girl I played with, would haul piles of tortillas up into the tree, and we'd eat them at all hours of the day, with our canteens of water, pretending to be pirates.

Mrs. Batchett, who kept chickens in her backyard, taught me her favorite comfort food when her hens would scratch me collecting the eggs - mealy potatoes boiled almost tender, then drained, and the water replaced with milk that had flour and pepper beaten into it, and heated until it was a thick gravied potato dish. Sometimes, I use her potatoes as a base for a corn chowder.

Mrs. Pollard, the teacher who lived next door, liked asparagus as her comfort food, picked ripe out of her garden. Her entire yard was bordered in asparagus ferns, and she'd pay me a nickel a day to harvest her asparagus for her. She'd share a dish of steamed asparagus, with a squirt of fresh lemon and sea salt, afterwards. Now, when I'm done with a day of gardening, I miss having that dish of asparagus waiting for me.

Cabbage, steamed tender atop a pile of frying potatoes and onions - what's sometimes known as Colcannon or Bubble and Squeak - is another favorite comfort food. I picked this recipe up at a PowWow and thought for the longest time it was American Indian, just not which tribe. The day I discovered it was an inherently Irish/British Isles sort of food, I laughed until the tears came.

And then wondered about the provenance of some of my other favorite comfort foods: the hot spicy puree of peas, the lentil salad, the rice omelet, the little balls of fried dough in a bowl of syurp.

I suppose what it boils down to is that food, just food, is comfort food. The act of eating, especially in company with others, is ultimately the most comforting thing to do, and the most religious.

I can't imagine a religious ceremony or ritual that doesn't involve food of some sort, or the awareness of food through abstinence of it.

Maybe that's why so many foods have gained a reputation as being sinful.

I should take that thread of forbidden foods back up again.

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