This wish may sound odd to you, particularly if you know much about me. I’m not Asian. I come from a family of bland meals where salt and pepper were considered spices. I believe my mother even put Kitchen Bouquet in her recipe, which shows you just how un-Asian we are when preparing Asian food.
But there was something about her chop suey. I love it to this day. It reminds me of love, of family dinners at 7 p.m. sharp, after a long day. Of my mother sipping a glass of wine after work, sitting in her favorite chair while sorting the mail. Of being warm and safe on a cold winter’s night.
When I used to travel frequently for work, I had the opportunity to dine in some really great restaurants. The kind where each person at the table has their own personal assistant of sorts. I took a sip of water; it was topped off every single darn time (and yes, that gets annoying after a few sips). I remember finishing a meal which required 12 separate utensils and silently thanking my mother for going overboard on table etiquette in my formative years. She saved me from looking like a doofus.
Some of these meals were excellent. Technically. A perfectly done steak, the freshest lobster, light and airy desserts.
Others were hit and miss. I remember all too well the white asparagus mousse I was served at one of Chicago’s finest restaurants. And I remember thinking that some things were just not meant to be mousse. At that same meal, each course was tinier than the one before it. My ex and I ended up ordering room service after spending far too much on a supposedly excellent meal.
Comfort food, by its very nature, must involve love and some soul. In a New York minute, I would have traded that elegant Chicago dinner in a gorgeous dining room for my mother’s humble kitchen table chop suey. One was made with love; the other, to impress. Food to impress is a hollow pleasure.
What Midwestern kid does not remember having green bean casserole on Thanksgiving? It scores as one of the least elitist dishes on the planet. Green beans with canned mushroom soup and some canned crunchy onion bits on top. It should be awful. But, many of us love it. To this day, I am delighted when one of the older people on my block makes it for a gathering.
Why? It reminds me of Thanksgiving at my Aunt Shirley’s house. Happily playing with my Michigan cousins. A house full of people. Chatter, spats, laughter, the relative who never shuts up, the one who knows it all, the one with the most enchanting stories. That casserole reminds me of times long past. Times, some days, I wish I could revisit. And, for some reason, my taste buds respond to it. I was conditioned early on, I guess, to like this combination of tastes. It’s not impressive. It’s just good.
There are other favorites, of course. Nothing made me happier, growing up, than the smell of my mother’s homemade bread in the oven. The tuna-with-an-olive-on-top-of-a-bread-triangle appetizers served on Christmas Eve. Baked beans. My father’s spaghetti squash.
I hope we don’t lose comfort food. I have friends whose kids eat very little outside of the planked salmon and whitefish rotation. Healthy? Yes. But not really very nourishing for your soul. When carbs are counted at every meal, it’s hard to feel comforted.
I see my sister’s kids ask for their favorite dishes when they visit. And her Christmas Day scones are to die for. My son will swear by my homemade macaroni and cheese, as well as my lemon cake.
I find myself hoping this happens around the world. At other dinner tables. With other families. Food is not just fuel. It is a pleasure to be enjoyed. One of my mother’s last requests while dying? Homemade mashed potatoes. And a milkshake. She stopped eating soon thereafter, but I look back so very happy that she got to have a meal like this. It’s one a child might order with delight when sick, knowing that she can have whatever she wants with no reprimand.
I like to think the mashed potatoes and milkshake reminded her of happier times at her own mother’s table or at her local soda shop as a teen.
When I cook for my friend, Meg, who is going through chemo, I try to think of food as fuel. That means I make chili with quinoa rather than ground beef. I throw some broccoli in with the onion. I get the science of nutrition.
But it also means I cook with love. She gets cornbread, which may have no redeeming value other than it tastes pretty darn good. As little as possible comes from a bag, can or box. It’s fresh. It’s cooked with love. I’m creating solace in the kitchen, for both of us.
They say it is not healthy to associate food with comfort.
Pshaw. Anyone who sees food strictly as fuel either has lost their taste buds or is completely missing the point.
Either way, that’s a sad story right there.
When you’re done telling it, please pass the chop suey.