comfort food

Home Cooking

My son, daughter-in-law and grandson are all are in Thailand this month, visiting my daughter-in-law’s family. This is her first visit home in seven years, and her family’s first time meeting Connor, so I’m sure it has been a fun-filled and exciting time for all of them. We’re keeping tabs on the visit via Facebook and smiling because most of the pictures involve eating. As my daughter-in-law reported this morning, “Eating is the national pastime in Thailand!"

She posted photos yesterday of some of her mother’s home-cooked specialities. “My favorite foods my mom makes!” she captioned the photos. “I've missed them so much!” 

It’s true, we miss those favorite home made foods, especially the ones we most associate with our childhoods. Growing up with two southern cooks in my house (my grandmother and my mother), as well as two more across the street (my great-aunt and my great-grandmother), there was certainly no shortage of home-cooked southern style goodness on our table. 

I grew up in an atmosphere where food equaled love. Great care was taken with every meal, every loaf of bread baked, every pie crust rolled and crimped at the edge, every cookie slipped hot and buttery off the sheet. My mother and grandmother’s day was devoted to domestic duties, so nothing was ever rushed or hurried. From fried chicken to grilled steaks, everything was prepared and served with love, a way of nurturing the body, but also the soul. 

It was also a time when we didn’t worry about what we ate. There weren’t daily news bulletins warning us away from all our favorite foods, no internet posts about the evils effects of fat or sugar or carbs or gluten. We ate what tasted good, we enjoyed it, and maybe most importantly, we didn’t feel guilty about it. When I was a child, I ate hot buttered toast (often made from thick slices of my grandma’s homemade bread), crispy fried bacon, and a steaming cup of milky coffee every morning of my life. Dinners were often more fried goodness: platters of chicken, golden brown and crispy on the outside, meaty and juicy on the inside; tiny, melt-in-your mouth lake perch, heaped on a platter, drizzled with lemon wedges, and gobbled up one after the other. Side dishes were potato salad, classic macaroni salad, baked or pinto beans, black eyed peas, wilted spinach with garlic, eggplant or okra (fried!).

My mouth waters at the memory. 

So, yes I miss all those home cooked favorites. They’re nothing like the dishes my daughter-in-law craves, and I’m quite sure her favorite foods are healthier than the ones I grew up on. But home cooking, as we all know, is about more than the sum of its parts. Because while I miss the aroma and taste of those meals, I miss even more the sight and sound of my grandmother bustling around in the basement kitchen of our house, wiping her hands on her ever-present apron. I miss seeing my mother working alongside her, preparing salad or vegetables, setting steaks out to marinade and eventually put on the grill. I miss us all sitting around the white formica table, my grandfather at the head of the table, my grandmother sitting nearest the stove, jumping up and down like a jack-in-the box to refill someone’s plate, add another batch of fish to the fry pan, or remove a fresh pan of biscuits from the oven. I miss being the center of attention while I told stories of my day at school, especially enjoying the reactions when the stories involved those classmates whose behavior was less stellar than mine. 

I know I’ll never taste anything like those foods again. My cooking skills (such as they are) were learned on my own. You’d think with two fine “home-cookers” in the house, someone would have taught me something. But there seemed to be a silent consensus between my mother and grandmother that I wouldn’t need to cook, that I was destined for “more” than a life in the kitchen. If I was hanging around aimlessly in the kitchen, instead of encouraging me to help with the meal, my grandmother might say, “Go up and play the piano for us while we’re cooking.” My mother might shoo me out of her way. “Go read your book, honey,” she’d say, giving me a gentle shove. “We’ll call you when it’s supper time."

Consequently, while I don’t mind cooking, it’s not an activity I’m passionate about. Most of the time, I do prefer eating at home to eating out. Most of the time I’m happier with the small portions of things I make for myself. I enjoy experimenting with new recipes, but since I’m feeding a staunch meat-and-potatoes Irishman, there’s not much room for exotic variations to the menu.  I imagine most of my son’s home cooking memories relate to things his grandmother (my mother) made for him: Shepherd’s pie, spaghetti and meatballs, turkey and stuffing, pot roast. Chocolate cake with caramel frosting, pumpkin pie with whipped cream. 

Comfort food of the highest order.

My grandmother would probably chuckle at the current obsession with cooking - all the food-related TV shows, and even a whole network dedicated to Food. To her, cooking was part of her job as a farmers wife, one of the vital chores she did every day. The fact that she was extraordinarily good at it was a point of pride, but not something she saw as an unusual accomplishment. Like everything else she did, it was done out of love for her family, out of necessity for their wellbeing, to make them FULL - of love, comfort, and tenderness, all sensed with a generous amount of butter, fat, and salt. 

In her book, Home Cooking, writer Laurie Colwin says that “when life is hard and the day has been long, the ideal dinner is not four perfect courses, each in a lovely pool of sauce whose lovely ambrosial flavors are like nothing ever before tasted, but rather something comforting and savory, easy on the digestion - something that makes one feel, even if only for a minute, that one is safe."

That sense of safety and comfort is the one I most yearn for when i think back to mealtimes growing up. I think that’s the key to successful Home Cooking, no matter where your home lies on the globe.