Monday, October 8, 2012

Comfort Begins at Your Dining Room Table

Although the weather man says we may have to deal with a few more ninety degree days, we’re all starting to look forward to grabbing a light jacket on the way out the door. Football games will be much more fun when we’re wrapping up in a blanket instead of fending off tropical storms.
The changing seasons will affect our eating habits, too. Instead of craving a slice of watermelon or a tall glass of lemonade, we can’t wait to set a pot of chili to simmer, and wrap our hands around a warm mug of hot chocolate. Ah, the comforts of autumn.

For me, certain foods prompt a flood of memories. We all have dishes that trigger thoughts of childhood, or happy times shared with friends. These so-called comfort foods have much less to do with their ingredients than with the familiarity, the easy association with our past, no matter where or when we eat them.

Now that I don’t have to rush off to join the daily caravan to the big city each day, I’m cooking breakfast for my favorite room-mate a little more often. For many weeks, I have cooked his requested memory inducing dish: eggs in a basket. I’ve experimented with different types of bread, and finally settled on sourdough. I use a drinking glass to carve the all-important hole in the middle of each slice. After browning the bread on one side in the skillet, I then pour in the egg before turning the whole ball of wax and continuing cooking to the desired “over-well” order. Unfortunately, he has informed me that this doesn’t quite measure up to the daily breakfast his Mom used to make before he headed off to school. This probably has to do with the type of skillet she used (seasoned iron) and the type and amount of grease (most likely a health dollop of bacon grease). The important thing- I give it my best shot.

My own comfort food is very specific. For as long as I can remember, we’ve had a one-dish meal on the table that I call simply macaroni and cheese casserole. Now that I’m cooking it myself, I find that it is most satisfying when I don’t stray far from the traditional ingredients: ground beef, big fat pasta noodles, longhorn cheese, whole stewed tomatoes and one hidden bay leaf. Recently, my uncle recalled that he’d always called this dish Spanish Delight. I will agree on the delightful part, but since it’s seasoned with marjoram and oregano, I’m not sure how Spanish it is. To use the vernacular of my southern friends, “We love him anyway, bless his heart.”

Traditional foods vary by the region one hails from. Our neighbors to the southwest may crave tamales, or something else wrapped in a tortilla. On the east coast, oysters or crab may figure in. During a recent trip to Cincinnati, we learned that they have a traditional type of sausage usually eaten for breakfast, called Goetta. This mixture of beef and pork was invented by German settlers who stretched their meat supply by incorporating pinhead oats. Interestingly, the taste for this delicacy has not stretched very far beyond the home of the Reds and the Bengals. I guess, for those who have moved away, it’s a good excuse to visit home now and then.

After all, it’s more about the picture in our head when we eat our favorite foods. I remember pancakes with carefully constructed smiling faces on them. Mom accomplished this trick with her own special artistry, sometimes adding remarkable details like eyelashes. My twist on this echoes an activity we learned on trips to Disneyworld: finding hidden Mickey Mouse faces. For my grandkids, the important thing is that Granny will keep the pancakes coming as long as they continue to eat them. A great way to start the day, not matter what the weather.

With some of our favorite holidays coming up, we’ll all do well to remember that traditions don’t require a lot of fuss. Smiles around the table with simple, traditional dishes make for happy and lasting good times. In the words of our friend Juila Child, “Bon App├ętit!”