Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Comfort Food

Verna reached into the recesses of her youth to retrieve some recipes for comfort. Unfortunately, she chose as her life partner someone who is rigid about food, even if I am no longer a vegetarian.

There are just so many foods I won't eat or let her buy because I deem them to be unhealthy.

"No, Verna, we can't get that cereal. It contains GMOs." "No, that fruit is not organic. Can't buy it." "Verna, did you see all the colorings in this, no way." And on and on and on.

But lately she has had a serious need to eat and remember. Her mother, who died abruptly last October, left a legacy of food that never fails to warm Verna's heart. Her mother would've been 85 yesterday and that has weighed heavily on her.

Last week, now that I eat chicken and fish, she wanted to make one of her favorites: cream of mushroom tuna casserole, something her mother had lovingly prepared years ago. Of course, at her husband's insistence, she had to buy organic cream of mushroom soup sold only at Whole Food's.

The recipe was pretty good, but Verna said, "It's not like my mother's."

She was being way too hard on herself. How can one compare generations, when food was prepared from scratch, by heart, without a guidepost, to today where we use recipes from mountainous stacks of cookbooks or online resources?

So, with almost tears in her eyes, Verna implored me to let her buy Campbell's Cream of Mushroonm soup, as her mother had done. Then, she said, the recipe will be even better. What could I say?

Last week, Verna also mentioned banana bread, another recipe from her youth. So she went online and pulled something off She bought the ingredients we didn't already have, and while she was riding her Lifecycle two days ago, Maya and I made banana bread.

Maya poured several ingredients into the bowl, barely spilling any sugar or flour. Her favorite parts were stirring the goopy mixture and folding in the chocolate chips. I let her eat a few chips as a reward for her help and to pacify her while we prepared the bread.

We even mashed the bananas by hand, something I told Verna after she ate the bread and had enjoyed it. The look on her face revealed she might not have sampled any of the banana bread had she known our fingers had been immersed in the bowl.

"Did you have any comfort foods when you were a kid?" Verna asked.

I scanned my memories. "Yes," I said. "Shells with cottage cheese," a dish handed down to my mother from her grandmother, who died just weeks after she found out my mother was pregnant with me.

Verna squinted slightly, as if to say, "That's it?"

What can I say? My Ashkenazic (Eastern and Western European) culinary legacy is superficially bland. Ultimately, it's all about the memories food conjures. My mother spoke of her grandmother Sarah, for whom I was named, when she made the dish, so I always felt as if I were linking into my family legacy when I ate shells with cottage cheese, which smothered with butter and a dash of salt, is pretty darn tasty.

The banana bread was excellent. Miguel asked for some for breakfast and as his school snack. I caught Verna nibbling the edges while she washed the dishes. Maya clamored for more and more. It was still moist a day later after being relegated to the fridge. I can't wait to make it again.

Tuna casserole. Banana bread. What's next? Whatever Verna wants--unconditionally, though I may draw the line on gizzards and hearts, which her mother poured over pasta. I still have some standards, I think.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Steve,

    Tell Verna that when I was a kid one of my favorite comfort foods was cooked until very soft gizzards and hearts with a cream sauce made out of the broth, served over toast. It was Lower East Side Jewish poor people's food, and was very inexpensive because most people didn't want or use those parts of the chicken. I remember it being delicious, and have lately read various articles about organ foods being really good for you, so I now happily serve that dish to me and Morris.

    AND, I had shells and cottage cheese also, and I loved them!