Thursday, January 16, 2014

Part 1 - Comfort Food

After my recent influx of children and visitors through the Christmas and New Year holidays, I found myself with odds and ends in the refrigerator. One day we had chicken breasts simmered all day in the slow cooker, which yielded a quantity of homemade stock or broth. We'd eaten all but one portion of the chicken in various guises--chunked up with rice and steamed veggies was a favorite.

Last night I discovered the remains of the broth and the last portion of cooked chicken, plus a few steamed carrots that somehow escaped being eaten. There was no leftover rice, but--in the pantry, I had packets of instant mashed potatoes, all flavors, that cook in three and a half minutes and are creamier and tastier than any I can make when I start with raw potatoes and good intentions.

The chicken and cooked carrots were easy to heat up. The potatoes did their 3 1/2-minute turn in the microwave. And the broth--heated to boiling with the addition of a little cornstarch, salt, and pepper--became gravy. It's been ages, maybe years, since I've had mashed potatoes with real gravy.

But, back in the days of my youth, I recall simple meals, well-seasoned, hot and tasty, that were what we now call comfort food. Potatoes and gravy would have been one of the easiest. Once the potatoes (from scratch in those days, naturally) were cooked and mashed with butter and milk, seasoned with salt and pepper, and served for supper, we always hoped for leftovers for potato pancakes another day.

We used no convenience foods, except canned tuna and salmon, Spam (which I actually ate and liked, I'm sorry to say), and canned soups from the Campbell Soup Company. And if there were other things available, my mother never bought them. She could make the best meatloaf and baked potatoes I ever ate. I have no idea what she did to her meatloaf, but mine never tasted as good.

I remember starches figured in most of the meals--macaroni with cheese (baked, not cooked on top of the stove); spaghetti with a mouth-watering meat sauce made the same day, or my personal favorite, meatballs--they took longer so that's probably why we seldom had them; fried potatoes with hamburgers, mashed potatoes with fried chicken, boiled potatoes with pot roast; sweet potatoes for special occasions, like Thanksgiving, though I don't remember turkey was a regular on the holiday table--probably a roasted chicken.

These are fond memories--food has always been one of my favorite things--and I'm glad my mother and her sisters were such good cooks. They've inspired me down through the decades of my own  planning, preparing, cooking, serving, and (of course) eating. For years I used only fresh ingredients, but as life got more hectic--four children in six years, going back to college to finish my degree, getting a job once the children were in school full time--yes, life became hectic, so I learned to use some prepared foods to supplement what I cooked from scratch.

All of my children cook--some like it more than others, but they all know how. My son and middle daughter like to experiment to come up with new things or twists on old faves. They all like to eat, as well, so our family gatherings are gastronomic delights.

At times when we don't have a big meal, we enjoy simple things: one of the evening meals I shared with my daughter last week was scrambled eggs, bacon, and gluten-free pancakes with real maple syrup. We both agreed breakfast foods could be eaten any time of day.

Although my childhood memories of food are good ones, I don't yearn for those times. I've cooked on a wood burning stove, a one-burner camp stove, a campfire, gas ranges, electric ranges...but I don't need to return to homesteading days. They're romantic to read about, I'll grant you, and we can learn a lot from the trials, tribulations, and triumphs our forebears went through. I'll stick with my modern range and refrigerator, cook veggies and poultry or fish from scratch, and once in a while whomp up a batch of gluten-free pancakes. Then I can eat a meal like those from my childhood while I read that book about homesteading.


  1. I still make mashed potatoes from the raw potato upward, but since I'm down here with no mixer (don't like potato mashers) I may have to try out the packets...I still prefer a meal to have a nice big carb addition to it!