Comfort Food Part 5: Eating for Comfort During WWII

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 5)

Eating food that brings you comfort is not the same thing as overeating. One is a reward and the other is a punishment. Believe me I, like many women, have dieted enough to know the difference. A craving for rich, fatty food though, is natural. Humans have evolved with a taste for the calorie-laden food we needed to stave off starvation in our distant past. I personally think every famine survival kit should include chocolate butter creams.

My dear mother has always had a sweet tooth. She told me during World War II when three of her four older brothers were stationed in war zones, her mother, Grandma Verna, made a treat with rationed sugar called “sweet cakes.”  Mom described sweet cakes as somewhere between a cookie and a cake.  Often Grandma and mom sat around the wood stove in the evening eating sweet cakes while they read books like Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, or Jean Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost.

Sometimes Grandma would set her book down and walk over to the front window, staring worriedly out at the dark valley below. Then one awful evening in 1943, she saw car headlights moving jerkily down the rough road leading to their house perched on a West Virginia hilltop. A telegraph had arrived. Her son, my Uncle Ray, had been grievously wounded on a little-known island in the central Pacific: Tarawa.

Comfort Food Part 4: Funeral Potatoes

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 4)

Life would be so much easier if we could eat whatever we wanted. I think cows live like that. No one tries to boss bovines around and tell them what they should eat. One time a friend treated me to something I didn’t want, a healthy salad luncheon. I remember chomping through the lettuce like a buck-toothed mule. Evidently, my friend was worried I might get as fat as a pig. Sure, I’d rather be lithe as a graceful swan. But mules are stubborn, pigs stink, and even swans are bad-tempered (unlike cows). Eating whatever you want may not solve all our problems–but it’s a start.

I have a recipe I got from the mother of one of my daughter’s old boyfriends. The dish is called Funeral Potatoes, which I assumed meant it was a standard potluck dish to share at funerals for families grieving the loss of a loved one. Funeral Potatoes are the very definition of comfort food, the basic ingredients being hash browns, soaked and baked with a half cup of butter, two cups of sour cream, and two cups of grated cheese.

It’s sadly ironic that my daughter’s old boyfriend was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and not expected to live very long.

“He wasn’t even a smoker!” my daughter cried, trying to understand how a brain tumor could happen to someone still relatively young and healthy.

“He may not have been a smoker, but he’s a human being,” I told her. “We’re all prone to mortality.”


Comfort Food Part 3: My Father, the Foodie

Comfort Food (Essay, Part 3)

I attribute my lifelong love of rich food, and the comfort I derive from eating it, to my late father. Dad must have been one of those people with extra taste buds layered on his tongue. Other cooks might add the seasonings a recipe called for, but dad felt compelled to sniff and sample the dried chili peppers, or ground thyme, or garlic powder, before he shook any into his soup pot.

The genetic link to my foodiness extends even past my father to his mother, Grandma Nancy. She was such an enthusiastic eater, she was chubby in the 1920’s when hardly anyone was overweight. Food was still slow then and “fast” had nothing to do with time, and everything to do with abstinence.
Food may have been the only crutch Grandma Nancy had to lean on. She was a single mother of two, working long days for a coal mining company in Eastern Kentucky. Evidently life became too bleak, and Nancy felt she had to give up one of her children in order to survive. My dad was the one she gave away to a barren aunt and uncle. Such soul sick, “Sophie’s Choice” situations could easily lay the groundwork for emotional eating.
The last time my father came to see me I remember laboring in the kitchen to make a nice roast beef and gravy dinner, knowing his penchant for meat and potatoes. I even stirred up some yeast rolls which he, coming from the South, referred to as biscuits.
But he wanted to treat the hostess. He insisted we go out to the Desert Inn for dinner. We could store the food I’d made in the fridge, he said. A few years after this visit I got a call from a hospital spokesman telling me my father had not survived his heart surgery. It was midsummer, and I remember looking out the kitchen window to the field beyond. A wind had come up bending the tall grasses low.

Comfort Food Part 2: Cancer and Brownies

southern-potato-salad-10Comfort Food (Essay, Part 2)

It seems like everyone I know is on some kind of special diet: gluten-free, vegan, lo-carb, non-processed, paleo.  We’re all caught between a rock and a hard place: needing to maintain a healthy weight and driven by the pleasure only good food can provide.  I’m not saying that eating healthy can’t be tasty too.  But I’ve been to those pot luck dinner parties and buffets where the offerings are raw kale and brown rice.  Usually my bowl of home-made, mayonnaise-laden potato salad is the only plate that gets licked clean.  Everyone goes away with a full belly and a big smile on their face.

I have a dear friend, who I’ve known all my adult life.  She’s in her 80’s and battling a colon cancer diagnosis.  We’ve spent years talking and laughing over tea or coffee or wine.  I can’t imagine my life without her in it, but maybe I should.  When she first told me her diagnosis and that her oncologist recommended chemotherapy, I promised I’d help her through this trial.  I’d buy some marijuana and even if I’m not a toker, I’d find a recipe for marijuana brownies and bake a batch we could both enjoy with our coffee.  It would be a way to double-down on the nausea chemotherapy causes with two highs: dope and chocolate.  What a great idea.  But she just smiled sadly, looking at me like I was from another planet, another generation—which I was.  My friend would find her own way through this hardship.