We are a culture that likes to eat. We celebrate new life at a baby shower with delicate appetizers, tiny cakes and tea. We eat at weddings and funerals, birthdays and anniversaries, and of course, important holidays like Superbowl Sunday and Thanksgiving. We love to eat.
Our family flew back to the Pacific Northwest for Thanksgiving, leaving the sensual moist trade winds of Hawaii for the hard white fog of Portland. I stepped off the plane and into the familiar PDX terminal. Dozens of people milled around the gate, hot lattes in hand and dressed in the required Pacific Northwest uniform--turtle neck and/or flannel button up shirt, blue jeans, warm socks with woodsy looking shoes and a jacket, medium grade, to keep out both cold and rain. Paul Bunyan's children.
Struggling with luggage and tired children, we stepped out to the sky bridge connecting the airport terminal with the rental car kiosk. The cold slapped me square in the face, sharp wind from a jealous city apparently still angry that I left for a warmer place. Deserter!
Outside was perma-gray. Day and night, the heavy fog never quite burned off, swirling around our ankles and rising off the road surface. Clouds from above capped the gray, preventing escape. The Northwest welcomed our homecoming with muted colors.
Most of the deciduous trees had turned adding splashes of autumn to a wide sea of evergreen. Along Airport Drive, I saw trees already naked, robbed of their colorful coats by the bitter arctic fronts that blow down from Canada and Alaska.
Little wet piles of red, yellow and flame orange leaves littered the sidewalks, making tiny banana peels for unsuspecting pedestrians. Be careful not to slip on the leaves, I warned my kids. But they knew better--running full out to embrace the cold that drove me from this place, making small puffs of smoke with their wide open mouths, drinking in the earthy taste of fall.
Stabbing pain in my left hip confirmed that I was home, not the place I live and make mine, but the place my heart lives. Home is where I can scratch where it itches and where the rest of my family live. My family is the comfort I crave in cold weather, comfort my body lacks physically.
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I decided to help Laurel. My sister was preparing Thanksgiving dinner for sixteen people and I didn't know what else to do with myself.
At about 9:30am, T-Day, my sister discovered that her oven had died. Chaos erupted--organized chaos because Laurel was firmly at the reins of our dog and pony show. She would cook the bird at Margie's. We would take care of everything else on the stove or in the micro-nuke.
The twenty-pound turkey was fully thawed, having spent two days, forgotten, riding around in the back of her van. Unconventional? Yes, but it worked with the frigid temperature outside. The bird was perfectly fine and ready for an oven... an oven that worked. Besides, no one would ever know how the bird was thawed. Right?
Laurel needed to cook the turkey at her mother-in-law's house. Margie and Tom were away, new grandparents visiting little Kimiko in Georgia. Laurel split the remaining duties. She handed me a list, confident (she hopes) that all the tasks would be completed. "But don't do the eggs," Laurel said. "I'll take care of those myself."
Eggs to be devilled were boiled, peeled and set to dry in a blue kitchen towel. Laurel allowed me to assist in a small way, slicing the eggs in half then spooning the yolks into a bowl. She made it clear, however, that she would do the rest. Later, when the eggs were finished, Laurel sprinkled generous amounts of fine paprika to give them a festive color. We had extra filling and called the kids to a lunch of creamed egg salad sandwiches. Everyone knows what a sin it is to waste comfort food.
Green Bean Casserole:
Everyone remembers the fateful year I used the wrong kind of green beans for the green bean casserole. Yes, in case you were wondering. There are wrong kinds. It was an easy mistake--I grabbed two cans of pickled beans that were mixed in with the regular cans on the shelf at Winco. I didn't even notice... but everyone else did... about five minutes into the meal.
Let's be clear: pickled beans taste horrible in green bean casserole, so do NOT try it at home. The french-fried onions on top did nothing to help the flavor. After all, putting a blonde wig on a pig won't make it a beauty queen, just a fancy pig.
Forgiveness and trust can be tricky. Sometimes the offense is too great. For the green bean casserole debacle, I was forgiven with a mix of Christian love and family duty. But never again was I asked to bring the green bean casserole.
Recipe for Piper's version of breaded comfort: 1 box (or more) Chicken Flavored Stove Top Stuffing mix. Butter, water, and one can of water chestnuts, chopped, for crunch. In large pot, combine ingredients and cook according to package directions. Stir and cover for five minutes. Sip glass of wine while waiting. Fluff stuffing with fork and eat directly from pan.
With garlic or cheese, butter and chives, or naked in all their glory, mashed potatoes are comfort food everyday, not just for the holidays. And there are a million different ways to eat our favorite subterranean friends. Do you make a little pool for butter or gravy in the center of your mashed potatoes? Are you a salt and pepper person? What about using mashed potatoes as a spread for your turkey sandwich left overs?
Yes! Taters are tasty and versatile. Thanksgiving (and any other day) is better because of the mighty spud. Our family even has a special dish for mashed potatoes, giving them the special honor they deserve. Everyone knows what's in the scalloped white china bowl. So dig in, but save some for me!
Studies show that men are aroused by two culinary scents: cinnamon and pumpkin pie. Surprising then, that all children aren't born at the end of summer or beginning of fall. Pumpkin pie is just plain delicious. Don't you agree? It's good hot or cold, with ice cream or whipped cream, eaten with a fancy silver fork reserved for special occasions or with fingers straight from the pie pan at 3 am. Mrs. Safeway makes a mighty fine pie, but pumpkin pie is best homemade. Bring it on!
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Comfort food. It makes us feel good, warm, and at peace with ourselves, despite what's happening outside. Comfort food is good for what ails us. Here's what the "doctor" has to say about that:
Dr. Selden's guide to Comfort Food conditions
Condition: Painful romantic break up.
Prescription: One pint Ben and Jerry's ice cream, your choice of flavor. Administer as needed.
Condition: Sick, with any or all of the following symptoms: fever, congestion, sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, diarrhea or constipation.
Prescription: Chicken or cream of celery soup with soda crackers, fluids, 2 to 3 hours of favorite television reruns and cold medicine of your choice. Dosage may be repeated every 6 hours. To reduce risk of mental stupor, do not exceed 10 hours of TV in one day.
Condition: Loneliness (general or specific).
Prescription: Macaroni and cheese, banana pudding, fried or greasy food of your choice.
Side Effect: Extended use may increase risk of Weight Watchers or other diet program.
Condition: Depression (general, specific or political)
Prescription: Chocolate and lots of it.
Side Effect: In large amounts, see Loneliness above.
In moderation, comfort food is good for the soul. Just don't forget the old saying: Practice moderation in everything, even moderation. So eat up! Alone or with a group, it doesn't matter as long as it's comfort food.
Have some... in a boat or with a goat, on a train or in the rain. Eat it, eat it here or there. Eat it, eat it anywhere. Now, will someone please pass the stuffing?