Sunday, January 12, 2014

Comfort Food

My emotional heart is undergoing surgery right now as ancient barbs are being moved about none too delicately and certainly not painlessly.  It's led to all sorts of misadventures, such as running out of the room and collapsing on the floor crying during yesterday's episode of My Little Pony (409).  One of the coping mechanism's that's come out is a mild obsession with comfort food.  Not so much eating it (although there's some of that) as making it for my family.

My adoptive mother hated cooking.  This wasn't a feminist issue (she especially hated feminists) but part of an overall loathing for any creative endeavor.  She hated anything handmade.  She grudgingly allowed that there might be some merit in works by people who happened to be old, white, male, extremely famous, and very, very dead; but that was it.  She would sneer equally at hand-embroidered clothes, artisan jewelry, dancers, gardening, flower arranging, choirs, potluck dinners, and the paper-and-glue creations we brought home from school.  In later years she would put up with our music-making or my cross-stitch, but only as long as we did what she told us to do for her and she could direct all the public credit her way.  Consequently the more creative dishes in the traditional American cuisine (or any other cuisine) never darkened our table.  My grandmother, the family's best cook, did the best she could to try the easier ones, but she was elderly, feeble, and had no sense of smell.

"Cooking" in my childhood home meant sprinkling seasoning salt on a piece of meat, sticking it in the oven, and heating up a can of vegetables.  I knew there had to be more to it than that, but there were no cookbooks in our house, save for a children's cookbook I had bought at school when I was 7, which amounted to "Fun With Sandwiches and Pre-made Cookies".  The first cookbook we had came when I was 14, boxed up with our very first microwave oven.  I devoured that book.  The only thing I was allowed to make out of it were microwave cheese omelets, but I made a lot of terrible cheese omelets.

My reward was a reluctance to allow me to cook anything.

I also loved to watch cooking shows on PBS, especially local boy Justin Wilson.  But Mom disapproved of PBS about as much as she disapproved of cooking, and for much the same reasons.

My senior year in high school I got a job at the town's only bookstore, and I brought home every cookbook they discarded. (This was long before remainder bins.)  I would bring them home and lose myself in poring over the pages, something my husband tells me I still do with cookbooks.  But back then it was for a different reason.  They were almost all written in some arcane dialect for which I lacked a phrase book which would help me decipher what they were saying.  There was one book for absolute beginners (nicknamed the "How to Boil Water Book") that told you how to throw canned stuff together and it was invaluable as a starter, but there was nothing to bridge the chasm between it and the rest of the books.

I started practicing cooking in college and made some horrible missteps at first, although the biggest mistake I ever made was letting another girl touch my cooking.  Turns out there were people out there who knew less than I did.  But by trail and lots of error I could at least put together an edible pot of stew after four years.

Then there were the hardware issues.  The cookbooks I had didn't talk a lot about those, and I was often left floundering in the dark.  When we got married the ladies who wrote took down the bridal registry were flabbergasted.  They'd never had a bride who didn't ask for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer.  We had no idea what they were talking about.  25 years later we've had one for over a year, and it has pride of place in our kitchen.

But even as I got the technical issues sorted out there were still the cultural issues.  There were often page after page of recipes for things I'd never heard of, sometimes even whole sections, and at least one entire chapter.  What the heck was an "Appetizer"?

It made me very uncomfortable to think of all the things I'd missed out on, and I was too embarrassed to ask anyone about.  Somehow the food I didn't grow up with came to symbolize a lot of more nebulous things I didn't grow up with, and I had no clue how to talk about those issues.

I started off cooking cuisines from the most exotic places I could find a cookbook from, figuring that way I'd be just as ignorant as any other American cook.  As I became more confident I started cooking more American dishes.  We still eat a lot of Chinese and other "foreign" dishes though.

After we'd been married nine months my family came to eat at our home.  They ate every bite and licked the serving dishes clean.  After a short bit of practice I was clearly the best cook in the family.  But THEY NEVER WANTED TO EAT AT OUR HOME AGAIN.  Although they always wanted me to cook whenever I visited them.  Go figure.

But for all our growing skill (and eventually, growing family) we were stuck with tiny kitchens for the first 20-odd years we were married.  It was only three years ago that we got a house with a decent sized kitchen space (although in severe need of a redo), and only a few months ago that we got the countertops finished and had space to spread things out and really work.  Suddenly dishes that had been out of the question before were possible.

Of course with everything else working great in my life and this general "lightness of being" setting in, what should surface but a humongous load of ancient trauma?  PTSD, the gift that keeps on giving.

So now I have this urge to cook comfort food.  Not the comfort food I grew up with, which was Campbell's chicken noodle soup, some soda crackers, and a Coke whenever I had to stay home from school.  But the dishes my grandmother made on special occasions, and some things I've never or hardly ever seen in real life.  I'm channeling it into increasing my range of non-starch, non-meat dishes, adding fruit salads like Waldorf and ambrosia to our meals, and doing more things with nuts.  Especially toasted nuts, which don't last very long around this house.

And when supper's not done and the kids are hungry now, I know how to put together a quick bite to hold them a little longer so they don't get cranky.

It's a little accomplishment as I try to hold my head above water in a sea of grief, but it's something.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

That seems like a big something to me. I was never allowed to cook as a child, either, and now I love it. So glad you finally have the space!