“Everybody has a favorite comfort food. We tend to have sentimental feelings toward what we ate as a kid even if it came from the “Colonel”. It reminds us of a time when other people took care of us and all we had to do was look both ways before crossing the street…” (From COMFORT FOODS by Rita M. Harris, Prime Publishing, 1997)
Comfort food is also defined in Holly Garrison’s cookbook titled (appropriately) “COMFORT FOOD” “…Certain distinctive foods that are reminiscent of childhood, adolescence, less complicated times and Mommy!” Occasional indulgence in these foods by adults is considered safer than drugs or alcohol and less expensive than compulsive shopping (From “COMFORT FOOD” by Holly Garrison, Dell Publishing, 1988).
Comfort foods seem to be getting a lot of press, these days. I picked up Rita Harris’ book “COMFORT FOODS” at a bookstore in San Francisco (and belatedly discovered that Ms. Harris’ comfort foods are not the same as mine). A quick search of my book shelves turned up Maggie Waldron’s “COLD SPAGHETTI AT MIDNIGHT” (what do chicken soup for breakfast and cold spaghetti at midnight have in common? She asks. “The power to comfort, revive, and even heal, or so goes the wisdom of folk medicine” Harris explains, comforters and revivers, the foods and remedies drawn from our warmest childhood memories, the foods we still turn to when we’re blue and out of sorts; steaming cinnamon tea on a bleak winter night, cooling sherbet for a sore throat, cold spaghetti for a nighttime raid on the refrigerator to erase a trying day…” (“COLD SPAGHETTI AT MIDNIGHT” by Maggie Waldron, was published in 1992 by William Morrow & Company).
I confess, I have never been tempted to indulge in cold spaghetti at midnight (SEE’s Candy butterscotch squares—yes, cold spaghetti—no). I also suspect that when cookbook authors such as Bert Greene compiled “BERT GREENE’S KITCHEN, A BOOK OF MEMORIES AND RECIPES,” or Mimi Sheraton composed “FROM MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN, RECIPES & REMINISCENCES” or Karen Brown’s “MEALS LIKE MOM USED TO MAKE”– they were all writing a tribute to comfort foods—they just couldn’t limit themselves to one or two dishes.
“STORIES AND RECIPES OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION OF THE 1930s” by Janet Van Amber Paske contains a lot of comfort foods, including one of my favorites—Scalloped Tomatoes. I spent years trying to find a recipe for this dish, which my mother called Stewed Tomatoes but the main thing about it was the inclusion of bread cubes. I think the primary reason my mother made it was because we always had plenty of bread to eat, and it was a sure-fire way to stretch a can of tomatoes. My mother baked two large loaves of homemade bread twice a week when I was a child. My mother’s stewed tomatoes puts me in mind of our house on Sutter Street, my mother ironing our clothes while we children sat around the kitchen table doing homework and listening to “THE SHADOW” or “MY FRIEND IRMA” or dozens of other radio shows. We all had our favorites—one of mine was Baby Snooks.
When I began putting together material for this blog post, I was reminded of other comfort foods from other times, and began digging into recipe boxes and going through old cookbooks, looking for them. Consequently, my grandchildren became guinea pigs, sampling old fashioned homemade chocolate pudding, tapioca, lemon meringue pie and baked apples, stuffed with chopped nuts and raisins and a dollop of maple syrup.
I had forgotten how silky-smooth and creamy chocolate pudding made from cornstarch can be.
My favorite comfort food for many years was actually a meal and I think it became Bob’s favorite comfort food too. Let me explain:
When I was a very young girl (maybe 9 or 10) one of my favorite Friday night meals was salmon patties, accompanied by macaroni & cheese, cottage cheese, and spinach with a bit of hard boiled egg on top. When I was about ten years old, this was the first meal I prepared for my brothers, one night when my parents were off to a bowling banquet or something.
“Do we HAVE to eat it?” my younger brothers implored, when my parents came down the stairs dressed in their going-out finery.
“Yes, every bite!” my father told them.
With my mother’s apron wrapped around my waist, I proudly served dinner; salmon patties, macaroni & cheese, spinach with a bit of hard-boiled egg chopped on top of it, and cottage cheese in little dishes on the side.
My brothers ate their dinner, then –of one accord, stood up, dramatically clasped their hands to their stomachs, and all fell down on the kitchen floor, groaning. I think I may have kicked them all on their backsides as they roared with laughter.
I still love salmon patties, which you may know as croquettes – and my brothers all still love to remind me of this meal.
Fast forward decades later; one time Bob & I were traveling up the California coast in our little Chinook camper. We camped one night near Point Arena (fabulous lighthouse—I should point out that I have had an ongoing love affair with lighthouses and we stopped specifically to visit the Pont Arena lighthouse) – but! It was cold, dark, foggy and dreary. I embarked on making salmon patties and macaroni and cheese on our little propane stove. We were running out of propane and the flame under the pot of macaroni flickered lower and lower. I was barely able to put together the macaroni & cheese. We ate, shivering, with me apologizing profusely because the macaroni was still – let us say al dente. Bob swore for the rest of his life that it was one of the best meals he had ever eaten. And forever after, whenever I was making salmon patties along with macaroni & cheese, he was sure to say, “This is good but you know what was really great?”
“The salmon patties and macaroni and cheese we had at Point Arena,” I’d finish for him, adding, “The macaroni wasn’t even cooked!”
Nobody ever said that a comfort food had to be good.
Another favorite comfort food of mine is so simplistic—it’s just buttered saltine crackers, with hot tea that has been laced with lemon juice. Often, when I was a little girl and frequently spent the night at my Grandma Schmidt’s, this is what we would have before we went to bed. (And it was always real butter at Grandma’s, not margarine!) If you had the good fortune to be sick AND at Grandma’s at the same time, you would be bundled up with blankets in Grandma’s bed, with Vick’s Salve spread on your chest, and tea and crackers at your elbow…Grandma would be in the kitchen, ironing clothes and you could listen to her daytime radio shows (Backstage Wife, Our Bill, or a local favorite, Ruth Lyons, a talk-show precursor who had a huge following in Cincinnati.
If I have a cold or the flu, or maybe if I am just having doldrums, buttered saltine crackers and hot tea with lemon juice will perk me right up. It ranks right up there with Campbell’s tomato soup made with milk instead of water, and buttered saltine crackers. (and taking a cue from Grandma Schmidt, I cook and bake with only unsalted butter).
There is a wonderfully charming book titled “COOKING WITH MEMORIES, RECIPES & RECOLLECTIONS” by Lora Brody, published in 1989 by the Stephen Green Press/Pelham Books—it’s all good reading, from cover to cover, but the chapter I related to most is titled “READING AT THE TABLE”. Lora tells about all the books she grew up on, eating lunch and reading at the table, ranging from Curious George and Dr. Seuss at first grade level—to the entire set of the Bobbsey Twins, in third grade—until she discovered gothic and romance novels in the 6th grade…and she tells how she forever associates certain foods with certain books. She tells how recently, when she picked up a copy of GONE WITH THE WIND, she had a sudden urge to eat saltine crackers with peanut butter and then remembered eating just that when she first read the book.
A kindred spirit! I was tempted to sit down and write Ms. Brody a letter and tell her about MY reading material and food associations. One of my nearest and dearest has to do with a set of children’s books by author Enid Blyton, whom many of you probably never heard of. She was a British children’s author (and a prolific one at that, writing and publishing hundreds of children’s storybooks) – and even though she wrote hundreds of books, the small library at St Leo’s school had about four of these books, all from the same series, about these four children who went to boarding schools and managed to have the most fantastic adventures “during holidays”. I read and re-read these books, munching on Reese’s peanut butter cups which I kept stashed under my pillow. One of the children had a parrot named Kiki which may explain why I had a parrot for over twenty years. I read by flashlight, under blankets (after my mother ordered lights out). I hid in our cherry tree with my books and saltine-crackers-with-peanut butter and other times I huddled with our dog, Mike, on the landing of our cellar steps, where it was warm and toasty in the wintertime, from the heat of the furnace, light coming in from a small window, and no one was likely to find you. (I don’t remember that anyone ever did).
Many years later, a British penpal found five of these books for me—with only the barest description of the stories. Apparently, many British children had grown up with Enid Blyton’s books, just as we had the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew.
I can’t eat a Reese’s peanut butter cut without associating it with Philip and Dinah Mannering, Jack and Lucy-Ann Trent, and their wonderful Valley of Adventure, Castle of Adventure, Sea of Adventure, and Island of Adventure. There were a few others to this series that my penpal sent to me, but they don’t have the same visceral affect on me as do those first four Adventure books.
Holly Garrison, author of COMFORT FOODS says “Comfort foods can be as different at the people who eat them. For some it’s a matter of plunking down enough money to buy a high priced chocolate candy. Others will take the time to fry a pan of mama’s chicken. When we reach for comfort food, what we’re really doing, of course, is reaching for those halcyon childhood days when the sun always shone and we basked in the unconditional love of Mommy and Daddy…”
Later on, she explains, “Researchers seem unable to decide if the benefits of comfort food are purely psychological or physiological, or some of each. When we’re feeling down in the dumps and out of sorts and decide to eat a brownie, is there something in the chewy little bar that really does trigger out bodies into making us feel better? Or are we simply taking a little fantasy trip back in time to Granny’s kitchen, seeking her authoritative assurance that all is well in these live it up, blow ‘em up, anxiety and panic producing times we live in….”
Ms. Garrison says that when she began asking more than 200 people from every section of the country the same question, “What’s your favorite comfort food?” the answers were always very much alike (Although I bet none of them voted for salmon patties.)
The comfort foods (and recipes) in Holly Garrison’s book range from crisp fried chicken and thick skillet gravy, chicken soup, pot roast, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach (Oh, dear me yes), my mother’s scalloped tomatoes, chewy oatmeal cookies to—everybody’s favorite brownies. (Neither my mother nor my grandmother ever made brownies – but I certainly did. I wonder if brownies are amongst the comfort foods of my brothers, my childhood guinea pigs).
In 1979, Atheneum Press published cookbook author Judith Olney’s COMFORTING FOOD (Ms. Olney is also the author of SUMMER FOOD, THE JOY OF CHOCOLATE, and one of my favorites, “THE FARM MARKET COOKBOOK”.
Says Ms. Olney, on the topic of comforting food, “Ask any random hundred people that you meet, ‘What is the most comforting food you know?’ and there will be a pause, a reflecting searching back through memory and time, and then almost invariably, an answer sprung from the farthest reaches of childhood: a certain dish, its aroma floating from a long-ago kitchen but still vital in the memory; something hot offered over and over and always after a day of wintry play; something bland that tasted rich after a week of eating nothing during illness; nursery foods; odd, peculiar little dishes in which one crumbled crackers into warm milk and seasoned them with butter, or probed bread fingers into a soft boiled egg; or placed five lumps of sugar on a cereal and waited for them to dissolve just so; or a glass of milk and beaten egg over which Mother held a grater so that one might scrape some nutmeg on; and behind the simple bread, egg, milk, (could we but admit one small tasty thumb) there lies that nourishment of which we can have no individual memory but only a collective one speaking to us of a deep security and union which we remember or imagine as the state of infancy; the entire comfort and contentment of the child at the breast….”
(I tried this experiment and first asked Bob—this was quite a long time ago—what his favorite comfort food was, and he replied “Ham Sandwiches”. I asked why. “Because,” he replied, “When I was in the hospital (as a young child suffering from a blood disorder) “my aunt used to sneak ham sandwiches in to me.” I asked my daughter in law Keara what HER favorite comfort food was and she instantly replied “Jello!” (when she was sick, her mother made Jello for her).
Many of my favorite comfort foods are associated with my mother in law, Bertha Smith, who has long since passed away at the age of ninety-something.
From my husband’s mother I learned to make perfect light and flaky biscuits, and milk (or white) gravy, cornbread and beans, a kind of New England boiled beef dinner, pot roast, absolutely perfect fried chicken, cube steak fried and then smothered with milk gravy, and green beans cooked with a piece of salt pork, cooked until the pot of green beans was limp and salty and yummy. I don’t think I had ever tasted a fresh cooked green bean until I met my husband-to-be. My own mother cooked string beans with some cottage ham, potatoes and carrots – but the string beans were ALWAYS from a can.(and I don’t think I have ever seen a piece of cottage ham on the west coast). I don’t much miss my mother’s version of string beans cooked with meat and vegetables (an excellent crock pot meal, by the way) – but I confess, I can stand by the stove and eat an entire pot of limp, salty green beans cooked down with a piece of salt pork.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember my mother in law ever saying “Now watch me, Sandy, because I am going to teach you how to make biscuits” although teach me, she did.
The other funny thing is that I can never make biscuits, corn bread and beans, cube steak, green beans or a kind of New England boiled beef dinner—any of these things, without staring off into space, thinking of Mother and our lives on Biegler Street, before my husband and I moved to California. I know I didn’t appreciate my mother-in-law, the person who taught me all those things, unwittingly, just as I learned from her—albeit unwittingly—my convictions for having a baby bundled up and always something covering their heads, covering their ears. (I shudder anytime I go into a supermarket—no matter what time of the year it is—and see a small baby with nothing on its legs and arms, just a onesie, and nothing on its head, no blanket, no cap. I have to turn and walk in another direction, to keep from saying something to the child’s mother.
It has taken me a bit of soul searching to figure out how all of those foods, taught to me by my mother in law, came to be comfort foods. It was simply this: when I was a newlywed, working a 9 to 5 job in downtown Cincinnati, I often came home to find my mother in law had dinner prepared. All we had to do was sit down and eat. I enjoyed the food but didn’t really appreciate it until years later when I was raising four sons and cooking three meals a day. Oh, the luxury of having someone else cook your dinner and put it in front of you to eat!
I didn’t make it to my mother in law’s funeral. My son Chris and his wife were about to become parents of Krystal, and I felt I had to be here for the baby’s birth, a conviction passed on to me, no doubt, by my mother in law, who had been here in California to help me when Chris was born.
So, in honor of Bertha Smith, who came from Bluefield West Virginia and settled in Cincinnati Ohio to raise her family, this is how you make corn bread and beans:
Rinse and soak about a pound of pinto beans (you can let these soak overnight). Next day, rinse the beans again and cover them with water. Add a chunk of salt pork (if you can’t find salt pork, a hunk of ham will do—or even some chopped bacon for lack of anything else); cover the pot and let it cook over a low flame all day. Stir it once in a while to make sure the beans aren’t sticking. Whatever you do, NEVER add cold water! (I don’t know why this is, but that was one of mother’s rules). If you absolutely must add any liquid, make sure it’s hot. The beans should be soupy. When it’s getting close to dinner time, make up a batch of corn bread—just follow the directions on a box of cornmeal and pour it all into a hot, greased cast iron skillet. Bake the cornbread until it’s done. While the cornbread is baking, chop up an onion. What you do is crumble some corn bread on your plate, spoon some of the beans and its liquid over the corn bread, and sprinkle a bit of chopped onion on top.
You will have heartburn all night but oh! The comfort you will know!
What’s your favorite comfort food?
–Sandra Lee Smith
COMFORT FOOD by Rita M. Harris, is available on Amazon.com – new for $3.75 and pre-owned starting at one cent.
COMFORT FOOD by Holly Garrison can be found on Amazon.com starting at one cent for a pre owned copy.
COLD SPAGHETTI AT MIDNIGHT by Maggie Waldron is available at Amazon.com, $3.00 for a new copy and pre-owned copies starting at one cent.
BERT GREENE’S KITCHEN, A BOOK OF MEMORIES AND RECIPES can be found on Amazon.com one cent and up for a pre-owned copy and $6.83 for a new one (hard cover).
FROM MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN by Mimi Sheraton can be bought on Amazon.com from one cent and up for a pre-owned hard bound copy.
MEALS LIKE MOM USED TO MAKE by Karen Brown is available on Amazon.com for fifty cents, pre-owned copy.
COOKING WITH MEMORIES, RECIPES & RECOLLECTIONS by Lora Brody is available on Amazon.com for one cent & up for pre owned copies, or $2.97 for a new one.
COMFORTING FOOD by Judith Olney is available for $3.00 & up for a pre-owned copy.
One final note, and this is regarding STORIES AND RECIPES OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION OF THE 1930s – well, it’s been quite a long time since I first wrote this article and when I typed in the above title, with Janet Van Amber Paske, I discovered she has about half a dozen or more titles, volumes 2,3, 4 – I think the one I have is the first in the series. It must have done quite well for itself since she has written so many more books on the subject. If you are interested in this topic, just visit Amazon.com or Alibris.com and see what they have.
Happy cooking! And Happy Cookbook Collecting!