The Magic of Comfort Food

 

 

 

Just last night, I cleared off a space on my sage green corian countertop for a new-to-me Cuisinart CBK-100 bread maker. I found it on Facebook Marketplace after watching a video on which Zooey Deschanel described the making of store bought bread, and a friend who lives very wholistically posted about the bread she had just baked. After a short FB convo in which I described how I used to bake bread but can’t anymore due to a shoulder injury and arthritis in my hands, she sought out some whole grain bread maker recipes and sent me the links. Well, of course that necessitated a bread machine.

So there she is. I think I will name her Wilma. As in Flintstone.

This weekend I baked my first loaf, using organic flours and local honey, and I have decided to keep unsalted butter softening on the counter always, just in case I want to nosh on a slice of bread.

Reading bread recipes started me thinking about comfort foods, all those delicious tasty treats that I turn to when my soul is feeling in need of a little TLC. Macaroni and cheese, Brach’s orange slices, a big pot of pinto beans simmered for twelve hours with a slab of salted pork and a little pickle brine…yum. Yum, yum, yum.

I had two really amazing grandmothers. One’s homemaking gift was sewing. The other’s was cooking. Whenever my brothers and I went for a visit, we’d wake up on the first morning to the scent of boiling chicken. Once the chicken cooled, Grandma June de-boned it and put all the little pieces back in her big, heavy stock pot, all the while pretending she didn’t see us snatching little bites of chicken off the cutting board. Then she rolled out the dough for dumplings, letting us sprinkle flour atop the dough to prevent it sticking to the rolling pin. She cut the dumplings into strips with a knife and dropped their floury goodness into the pot of simmering broth and chicken. If memory serves, there were little bits of celery and a good amount of salt and pepper. She served it with an iceberg tossed salad, which I skipped so that I could have seconds of her wonderful chicken and dumplings. I have never, ever found their equal.

And her snickerdoodles? They had just the right amount of density, and she rolled the dough balls in cinnamon sugar to coat them all the way around, every bit of the cookie had sweet coating. I have not had one since 1982. I thought I would never, ever find one as good, until last fall, when a friend from the Renaissance festival where I work brought a batch in. They were just like my grandma’s. I actually teared up when I tasted them. So perfect.

Hamburger Helper

My own mom wasn’t much for cooking, so we tended to eat a lot of Hamburger Helper. I could even make this for the family on my own, once I got to be about ten years old. Potato Stroganoff went over well, I was always fascinated by the texture of the dehydrated spud slices. I tried to eat one once, thinking it might be similar to a potato chip. It wasn’t. Sometimes we used Tuna Helper instead. It was okay. But the best? The very best variety? Hands down: Cheeseburger Macaroni. Oh, the heaven of that bright orange powdered cheese! I loved to watch it dissolve in grease and water as I stirred, becoming a cheesy gravy over broken up bits of ground beef and softening noodles. I confess that I fed this to my own children when I became a mom. The bulk of my motherhood years, especially the years when they were little, predate my awareness of preservatives and starches in prepackaged food. My kids loved it, and a box of Hamburger Helper and a pound of ground beef were within my tight budget. No regrets. Not one.

Pancho

When it came to eating out in my childhood, there were really just three places: Whataburger, Furr’s Cafeteria, and my favorite, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. Texans, especially Dallasites, will recognize those spots. At Pancho’s, you walked the line like a cafeteria, and once you ordered your size of plate, the server used tongs to slide an exceedingly hot metal dish into a color coded plastic trivet (the colors told the servers how many items you could have and the cashier how much money to charge). I watched, salivating, as servers filled my tray with cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans, and fried tortilla chips. Later, as an adult, I added sauteed calabacita (squash), but when I was a kid? Carbs and cheeses all the way. My dad loved the chile rellenos.

Each table had a little Mexican flag (sans coat-of-arms) on a tiny flagpole, and when you needed a refill on your drink, you raised the flag and an attendant came to pour tea or fetch soda.

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the sopapillas. If you are not familiar with sopapillas, they are pockets of friend dough that you pour honey into. Some other Tex-Mex places serve them with cinnamon sugar on top, and that’s okay, but the best thing was to bite into the corner of the sopapilla and then use your hand to squeeze until the hole you’d made was just the right size to pour honey in. I remember when my dad showed me, then my little brother, then my baby brother how to do it. The sopapillas came in a basket, with free refills. Again, free refills. It was not unheard of to finish a meal with three of them. And a little tummy ache.

When I was about ten, the middle child, Lance, and I decided to play with our baby brother, Chad, and we convinced him that a tiny little man in a sombrero was running under all the tables, magically filling honey bottles and sopapilla baskets unseen. I remember watching Chad climbing over and under the booth seats and table, trying to catch the little man. Lance and I kept straight faces, somehow, until Chad shed frustrated tears and Daddy set everything right.

Halloween, 2003, at Panchos!

As an adult, I took my own kids there. Our last visit was on Halloween of 2003, and we took the younger two (aged twelve and nine) who had just finished trick or treating in our neighborhood. The youngest was still dressed in the kimono I’d sewn for her, and they took photos with the mascot, Pancho, on what ended up being the last night we took our kids trick or treating together. After that, they were just grown out of it.

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When I was newly married and about to host my in-laws, daddy, and grandmother for Thanksgiving in our student housing apartment, I panicked. I didn’t have any idea how to make a Thanksgiving dinner! I ran to my Aunt Molly’s house, and she spent a day teaching me about green bean casseroles and mashed potatoes, turkey basting and yeast rolls. But the best gift she gave me that day was her recipe for cornbread dressing, which has become the centerpiece of every Thanksgiving dinner at our house. Her recipe came from her mother-in-law, Reba, and I have never tasted its equal: mushrooms and almond slivers sauteed in butter, sage sausage, and savory spices make this recipe unique, and our hands-down favorite. That, and the tortilla soup we make on Christmas Eve, are my own family’s two collective comfort foods, the dishes that serve as the accompaniment to our holiday gatherings.

I have spent my entire adult life in a love/hate relationship with food. Trying to be skinny, skipping meals, depriving, then rebelling by eating too much of the things that my body didn’t gain nourishment from.

I am on a new journey now, though, one that is allowing a feeling of joy and peace to return to my spirit: learning that food is actually powerful, and can work magic in a beautiful way. The closer I can get to the foods that nature Herself created, the better for my body and spirit. But sometimes, just sometimes, a generous helping of gooey cheese sauce or sugary candy just hit the spot. Bon Appetit!

What are your favorite comfort foods?

Here’s the recipe I used for my honey whole wheat bread:

https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/bread-machine-wheat-bread/

And I use honey from https://www.facebook.com/queenbeehoneyremedies/

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Seattle, July 2, 2018

On day five in Seattle, the sky finally turned a bright blue, so I headed over to the Public Market to re-snap some photos with that brilliant azure in the background.

Turning Back

Did you ever pick at scabs when you were a kid? Those big, juicy ones that crusted on your knees and elbows from all the falls you took when on the monkey bars or on your bike? I did. It hurt, it made my scrape open up and bleed some more, but I just couldn’t help reopening the wounds. It didn’t matter if the grown-ups explained that I was going to have scars if I didn’t leave the scabs alone. Potential infection didn’t deter me, I just picked away!

bandaid-heart-As I got older, the wounds became less literal. Not skin and bone- heart and soul. When I was seventeen, I broke up with a boyfriend that I had been dating for over a year. He was a good guy, but timing just was not right: he was in college, I was a senior, yada yada yada. Weird thing, though, I kept driving by his house. I would sit outside, not crying, really, but grieving. Pretty dramatically, I suppose. It felt good to wallow.

In college, I auditioned over and over to be a hostess for our annual Follies. I never did get to do it. That was tough, because I had to sit in the auditorium for chapel every day, and look at the stage where I felt so defeated.

1988_2Until I decided to stop auditioning for the thing I was never going to get and direct my club’s show, a sentimental journey through the tunes of the Andrews Sisters, which won first place. Then that space, that stage, became a symbol of power (as long as I governed my thoughts). Wounds don’t just come from romance or falls. Sometimes they come from being shut out.

When my husband changed jobs and we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, I used to sit at my picture window, gazing out while wistfully wishing to move back to a town that, if I am honest, I was miserable in. I even envisioned my own woe, creating a mental picture of the melancholy pose I struck as I sighed. I looked, in my own mind, as gorgeous as any Gothic heroine. I should have been dressed in a while linen empire-waisted gown, though in truth, I was probably covered with graham cracker goo and baby spit-up, hair going every which way.

When we left Oklahoma to go back to Texas, after two weeks I called a church deacon and begged, “Please let us come back. Please.” They said no. They said, “Look forward. Not back.” It would be a while before I understood how to do that. And did it. I had to figure it out myself, because I hadn’t really seen it before.

Ten years after her divorce, my mom still sat with her wedding album, flipping through plastic-encased portraits of her happy day, remembering a time when she was joyful, healthy, and surrounded by bridesmaids. Really, her entire adult life was spent, I believe, looking back: wishing to undo mistakes, wishing to be young and happy, wishing to have close friends.

Revisiting sites of injury was a family trait. Sometimes those sites were physical, like boyfriend’s houses, scabs, or stages. Sometimes not, though.  I could not possibly account for the hours I have spent, in my own mind, replaying scenes in which I hurt someone or someone hurt me.

But now I don’t. I just don’t go to places that hurt. I have made the conscious choice to avoid hurting myself. When I reflect on it, I think I made the decision to stop visiting hurtful places around the time I also made the decision to stop cutting myself with scissors.

I was a late comer to the cutting thing. When I was a teen, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do to alleviate sorrow and anxiety, so I tried the pursuit of perfection and the allowance of boys defining my identity, with a bit of disordered eating thrown in for good measure. In my thirties, though, I found it. Cutting, I mean. Sometimes I escaped to the little office in my theatre classroom to grab scissors from the apple crock in which I still keep pens and pencils, and I would dig deeply into my arm. At home, I might grab a kitchen knife and lock myself into the bathroom, cutting my thighs. It burned. It hurt. And it gave me more scabs to pick at.

I don’t cut myself anymore. I am not ashamed of that chapter, I will talk about it if I am asked. But it’s not my favorite thing to revisit.

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There are also places I don’t visit. I have only been to my mother’s grave once, and to my father’s never (beyond the days of their funerals). It is too hard. It opens floodgates of sorrow, sorrow that is close enough to the surface of my heart that tears and heartache don’t need gravestone markers to incite them. For some, visiting those graves is a comfort, and I say, “Go. Please, and tell them I love them while you’re there.”

Churches are a no-go. Way too much hurt inflicted when my husband was in, and then out, of youth ministry. Way too many Sunday mornings when no one said hello. Way too many judgements and proclamations and “encouraging words” masking an assumption about who I am and what I need.

I tried going into the auditorium of the high school where I spent eight years building the theatre program from the ground up, and which I left because of a combative administration. The day I went there, I was laid low, emotionally tender and teary-eyed for days. So I don’t go back in there any more. I know my former students wondered why I didn’t come see their shows, they were so sweet to invite me, but I just couldn’t.

998293_10151606483607711_2070554230_nWe sold the home we spent the bulk of our child-rearing years in, I can’t drive by it, I just can’t. And the house I just sold last year, the one we built from the ground up? No way. When mail was delivered there for a month or so after our move, my husband had to go pick it up.

I don’t visit the local community theatres, not even to see shows. Those are places that have become like great big, giant triggers. Sitting in them feels like little bits of broken glass all over my skin while I am reminded of so many times of being overlooked.

Some places, some people, some memories, just hurt a little too much. Is there beauty in pain? There can be. Is there growth in pain? Often. Is there a benefit, though, in reopening old wounds, wounds that aren’t festering or infected, but are still vulnerable? Not for me. I have had to learn to stop standing at the picture window, sighing and mooning. No more drive-bys to old scenes of hurt.

Like the Fleetwood Mac song says,

“Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done?
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do.”

Everyone’s life has been bad at one point or another. I suppose we all have different ways to heal and protect.

Shielding my quiet soul means choosing where I go. For me, self care doesn’t look like spa facials and chocolate truffles. It looks like a picket fence, covered in flowering vines, protecting me from turning back. It looks like my yoga/meditation room. It looks like my yellow bicycle. It looks like screen shots of texts from my close tribe of trusted friends. It looks like writing a book instead of directing or acting a play script. It looks like my husband and children. It looks like…my life.

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