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Cooking for Comfort: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes That Are as Satisfying to Cook as They Are to Eatby Marian Burros
Roughly three years ago, for reasons that now seem as unfathomable and obvious as a shift in the weather, I began to long for the simple, straightforward food of my childhood. After spending close to two decades putting together recipes for quick-cooking dinners appropriate to a fast-paced urban lifestyle — food that could be put on a table 20 minutes after coming home from work — I just wanted to take the kind of time my mother could afford to put a meal on the table. I wanted the food my mother made for me.
This return to simple pleasures has been under way in America's restaurant kitchens for a couple of years. It is part of an evolutionary process. Now that American chefs know they can cook as well as anyone in the world, they don't have to prove it anymore. As consumers, we've gone from coveting food from abroad to coveting food from the local farmer. Today, in the culinary world, the phrase "locally grown" has as high a standing on menus as fancy ingredients like foie gras and truffles. We want artisanal food, not corporate ingredients. We want meat that is organic and grass-fed, not stockyard-raised or bioengineered.
In fact, in some ways we have come to a point where the quality of the ingredients is more important than any fussing done with them. These two directions — on the one hand a desire to return to the satisfying, family-based meals of America's past; and on the other hand the desire to eat healthy, family-farm-based ingredients — have led to the reappearance of what has commonly come to be called comfort food. We are embracing dishes particular to America, reinterpreting them in some instances, leaving them as they stand in others. This process is part of a natural cycle, too. Many of us have become bored with the refinements that some chefs had been visiting on their dishes, just to one-up their colleagues, it seemed. Eating out at some restaurants required too much work.
Not coincidentally, this change in viewpoint has also led to the publication of this book — which brings me back to my mother again. When she started cooking, most of what was available fresh was regional. Not much was being shipped across the country, and almost nothing came from abroad. That meant we ate corn in the summer, and it meant that she bought it at the farm on which it was grown, about 15 minutes away from our house in Waterbury, Connecticut. The farmer sold corn that he picked twice a day, nothing else. My mother always went to him late in the afternoon, after the final picking, so that the corn was just out of the field and half an hour later was in the pot. And she examined every ear, pulling back the husk a little to see if there were worms. (Pesticides had not yet arrived on the scene.) Today, if I see a worm in the corn, I'm thrilled!
My mother's chickens and eggs also came from a nearby farm, though she bought them at a market; we thought a double-yolk egg a happy miracle then. The milk was delivered by a milkman, and it had cream on the top, a big treat for cereal in the morning.
After World War II, though, something happened to our food — the way we grew it, processed it, and shipped it. None of it was good. Only in the last 20 years, in fact, have we started to react to the terrible crimes against taste that were committed on American farms in the name of efficiency, cheap prices, and uniformity. Today, thank goodness, we can find food as good as, and often better than, what my mother had available to her. That makes simple cooking far more rewarding than trying to create restaurant meals at home.
This craving for simplicity and for Mother's cooking crystallized for me on September 11, 2001. Not just for me, it seems, but for other Americans as well. First our desire for comfort food was an effort to assure ourselves that the world had not come to an end, even if the world as we knew it had. Now it is an assurance that everything is still, somehow, all right.
In the days and weeks that followed, in my kitchen, as in others around the country, recipes for meat loaf, tapioca pudding, lemon meringue pie, toasted cheese sandwiches, and tomato soup were retrieved from the dusty recesses of kitchen cabinets.
A month after the attack I wrote a column for The New York Times about this rush to pamper ourselves at the table. Recounting a story told to me by Joan Hamburg, the WOR radio talk-show host in New York City, I wrote: "Even the X-ray thin have thrown caution to the winds, in search of the familiar, the comfortable."
Joan had been clucking over the behavior of guests at lunch during a football game. "All those thin women dove into the chicken potpie and the corn bread and the double chocolate mousse pie," she said. "That potpie with its wicked crust — you can't believe how they were mopping up the sauce from it with bread."
The article struck a chord with readers, one my editor at Simon & Schuster, Sydny Miner, heard right away. "It's the stuff that makes me feel safe," she said. Cooking for Comfort was born.
When life gets more uncertain, more stressful than usual, we look to foods that made us feel secure as children. For those of us who were brought up on the twentieth-century American diet, that means meat loaf dressed with catsup, buttery mashed potatoes, and chocolate chip cookies.
I went rummaging through my recipe box, which had been sitting on the top shelf of a cabinet, well out of reach. In it I found the treats of my childhood, many of which I had abandoned in the first flush of my own independence and adulthood. The writing on many of the 3-by-5 cards was in my mother's hand.
But Cooking for Comfort couldn't be just about my family's cooking, and so I queried my friends, and sometimes perfect strangers, to come up with a list of recipes about which most people would agree: macaroni and cheese, spaghetti with marinara sauce, brownies, crab cakes, onion soup, cheesecake, and, of course, meat loaf and mashed potatoes, as well as dishes that are not so universally applauded, like tapioca pudding and cheese grits.
There are probably some comfort foods you will look for on the pages of this book that you will not find. My editor said that nothing made her feel more comfortable than the smell of coconut roasting in the oven, because her mother made coconut cake every Christmas. Others told me how much they loved Grape-nuts pudding or tongue sandwiches. But those didn't make the final cut.
No, this book, for all my attempts to broaden its appeal, is a very personal one; it comes from my family heritage and from where I was brought up. As a result, it appears well anchored in an East Coast tradition, though I have striven mightily to include recipes from elsewhere in the country. (A friend from the Northwest said that turkey burgers were a great comfort food out there. I must have had the wrong recipe.)
There are, however, some East Coast classics that I could not in good conscience include. Chicken tetrazzini really is an awful creation. Three tries and it was out. I attempted to resurrect a molded potato salad with which I won a trip to Europe but today cannot imagine why. And what ever did I see in my recipe for pumpkin chiffon pie? On the other hand, when the twentieth or twenty-third person told me that grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup were definitely comforting, I produced a recipe for cream of tomato soup. Campbell's it is not. It's better.
Much of this food is not food anyone would want to eat every day because, by definition, most comfort food is creamy and buttery and often sweet. Still, there are some recipes that fit right into a healthful diet, and I learned as I went along that there are substitutes that can be made to lower a dish's calorie count without destroying its integrity. In the book most of these recipes are described as "streamlined."
Of course, for some people it is not just the act of eating the meat loaf or lemon meringue pie that is soothing; it is the act of cooking them. Taking time to put something together offers concrete proof of effort. Cooking takes a certain amount of concentration; it's hard to think of the complex and sometimes frightening problems of the day over which you have no control when you have to think about something over which you actually can exercise control — what you are doing right now. I had, frankly, forgotten how satisfying and peaceful it is to take my time when cooking. I loved every moment of recipe testing for this book...
With one possible exception, that is. Eight tries at popovers and I never got one I liked well enough to include without buying cast-iron muffin pans, even though popovers were once a favorite of mine.
Comfort food is here to stay, it seems. Though the immediate fear and depression that followed 9/11/01 have receded, people are still uneasy because we are living at a time of enormous uncertainty. We are in the midst of a new kind of war, even as we experience the aftereffects of a burst economic bubble and the sometimes illegal activities of the captains of industry who have let us all down.
Meals with family or friends help us forget about that. We want to go back to a time when life was not so complicated — or, at least, when we look at it from a distance, it was one that seemed much simpler. One of the few ways most of us can get there together is through our food.
And, in fact, what we can have on our tables today is a good deal better in some ways than what we could have had in the good old days — there are many more quality ingredients available to us as a nation and greater knowledge within it about cooking. My mother couldn't buy fresh mozzarella or fresh goat cheese. She had only one baking chocolate from which to choose. In the last fifty years we've learned a lot.
There is progress in Cooking for Comfort, too.
Copyright © 2003 by Foxcraft, Ltd.
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