Comfort food evokes oven-warm memories |

Comfort food evokes oven-warm memories

In a stressed-out, health- conscious society that is obsessed with being thin, it’s good to know we can find comfort in food.

My parents brought us up right when it comes to eating. They prepared lots and lots of good food – I believe the buzzword is “comfort” food – including pots of beans soaked overnight and then cooked for hours with smoked ham hocks and chunks of ham; golden brown pans of chewy, crusty cornbread made with coarsely ground cornmeal and slathered with butter; bowls of banana-and-mandarin orange-filled Jell-O; and sweet, creamy, fish eye-dotted tapioca pudding which my dad would painstakingly stir for (it seemed) hours until it thickened to the desired richness.

If we were lucky, he’d make oversized pans of cake brownies which he’d top off with a secret recipe: a thick coat of the sweetest, darkest chocolate frosting.

A recent commentary on NPR noted that those home-prepared meals are fast becoming “a relic of the past.” It isn’t that America doesn’t crave home-cooked meals. There is an ever-growing trend for families to dine on fast foods and purchase pre-prepared meals, said reporter Frank Crawford. Restaurants, and even food stores, are responding to the demand by offering more in the way of complete, “home-cooked” meals.

People don’t have or make time to cook and bake like they used to. Where just a generation or two ago people relied on what was in the garden and available for slaughter for their meal planning, today’s global menu is richly varied and seldom limited to the season. As a result, consumers have become more demanding in their expectation of purchased meals.

In light of that trend, my past history has of late become something I’ve been ingesting with pride. I hope, at least in some small way, to pass on my love for preparing real foods from simple ingredients to my children, just as my parents did for me.

When we were kids, my parents worked full-time and then some. My dad took on odd jobs to help cover the family’s expenses and my mom grabbed every overtime hour she could. Even though they weren’t wasteful or extravagant spenders, there were bills to pay. Comparing their lives to mine, I don’t know how they did it.

I work full-time now, but not the same grueling hours as my parents when they were young. But even if they would have had access to fast foods (Aspen fought fast food chains tooth and nail and didn’t even get a McDonald’s until the early 1980s), I don’t think they would have made it a habit to come home with bags of Big Macs or buckets of KFC. That wasn’t the way.

Unlike today’s families, we rarely, I mean almost never, ate out. I can remember my parents, and in particular, my dad, spending all Sunday afternoon creating the coming week’s food. He made a sandwich spread by grinding pounds of balogna, jars of pickles and bricks of cheddar cheese in our metal, hand-cranked food processor. He’d chop and blend and mix and bake until the dishes covered literally every inch of counter space.

By evening, the leftover pots of potato soup or chili, buckets of fried chicken and pork chops would fill the refrigerator and provide the brunt of our meals for the coming week.

In essence, that which my parents, my four older, bottomless-pitted brothers and I didn’t devour became our fast food for the coming days. It held us over until the cycle could begin again.

We didn’t eat every meal together, yet food was a family affair. One of my mom’s specialties was shredded beef tacos. After baking a roast all morning (cold winter mornings were the best), we’d fill flour tortillas with shredded beef and slices of Monterey Jack cheese and fry the tacos on an oiled griddle and eat until our stomachs bulged.

The house always felt so warm, the smell was nothing short of heavenly, and the taste was unlike any I’ve ever been able to find in a restaurant.

Thankfully, that patience in taking hours to prepare a meal rubbed off on me. There’s a certain satisfaction in searching cookbooks for that perfect recipe, chopping fresh ingredients and tending to every tasty detail. That satisfaction isn’t just in the meal itself. It’s in the carrying on of tradition, in finding pleasure from one’s work, and in the creation itself.

I’ll admit, there are drawbacks to making delicious foods. A fresh-baked loaf of honey rye flake bread doesn’t last as long as a loaf of Wonder Bread.

Then again, those real foods that take effort and time and thought tend to not sit around long enough to get moldy.

Every now and then one of those foods comes to mind, like fried salmon cakes or my dad’s puffy sugar cookies, which he stored in 5-gallon buckets. When I ask him for recipes he always responds with something like, “Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just canned salmon, egg and cracker crumbs” or, “It’s just your basic sugar cookie recipe.”

It puzzled me for years what he used to frost those pans of brownies. “It’s simple,” he said when I finally asked for the recipe. “All it is is fudge.”

Tamie Meck is a Post Independent staff writer. Her column runs on Tuesdays.

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