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Characterize the concept of comfort food

December 27, 2011

Not long ago, a family friend and reader suggested that I attempt to do a column that would define the concept of comfort food. “Attempt” was not the word he used – that vocabulary was of my own choosing when I realized that a few hundred words would only scratch the surface of the idea. I fear the notion is much too broad and opinion-generating to be contained in one week’s ramblings. Then again, when did something like that stop me? Perhaps we could at least get the conversation started. The holiday season - beginning with Thanksgiving, rolling through Christmas and soaring on to New Year’s Day - is a period when specific comfort foods make annual appearances.  These are dishes that could be prepared all year long, and in some cases they are, yet the combination of ingredients and timing seem to set apart this particular group of comfort foods. Case in point: turkey and dressing. Whether or not it is your family’s choice for Thanksgiving or for Christmas, this combination has a distinct holiday ring. Yes, you can get yard-bird and dressing as the meat in your blue-plate special in June – maybe even on a weekly rotating menu. But between a late November Thursday and the end of December, somehow it becomes a slightly different dish. Maybe it’s the cranberry sauce? Or maybe it’s the anticipation of enjoying it at the family table during that time of year when everybody tries a little bit harder to get home – that may be the secret ingredient that makes it a comfort food to many. There is another aspect to this theory that is also worth exploring: holiday foods can be comfort foods because of their strong ties to tradition. Let’s go back to the turkey and dressing. In fact, we have to go all the way back to Thanksgiving to find it on my side of the family. On Christmas Day we find our comfort in fried chicken and homemade ice cream. Odd? Perhaps.  Can we get fried chicken 24-7 in this generation? Absolutely. Do we crank up the freezer for ice cream at other times during the year? Sure we do. But gathering in late December, eating chicken that Mama fries in her antique electric skillet, and finishing off the meal with Butterfinger ice cream that Daddy and his White Mountain freezer have labored over in the garage? That’s family tradition – that’s comfort food. As I pen these words on Christmas Day, I am full of this comfort food. Maybe a wee bit beyond full. The fried chicken, the green bean roll-ups, the corn casserole, the hot fruit salad and the gravy – oh, the gravy – all were there at the table, like members of the family. After a brief respite, the ice cream was brought out with “oohs” and “aahs” and discussions of how long it took to freeze this time. Each component of the meal has a story and a familiarity that kicks us into chill-axing mode whenever we sit down as a family and enjoy it together. It wasn’t too many years ago that we had to come halfway across the world to enjoy this aspect of comfort food with the family that made it so. Because we weren’t able to make the trip every year, we had to find other ways to manage. In that part of the world, we would pay just about any price for even the smallest of turkeys during the holidays, simply because they were so rare.  And though we could get pretty excited about our tiny turkey, on Christmas Day I would still venture out to buy a couple of pieces of fried chicken, knowing that many thousands of miles away that’s what my family would be eating about nine time zones later.
These days we just drive across town. But no matter how far we might have come to enjoy the same dishes year after year, there is also comfort in knowing they will pretty much taste exactly like they did every year before. One day I want to learn to fry chicken, but I’ll still want Mama to make it on Christmas and birthdays. Other dishes can be delegated without losing consistency. The green bean roll-ups may vary depending on who is on the assembly line - the bacon to bean ratio may be altered, the Durkee sauce might be poured by some and drizzled by others – but still the combination of those three flavors sing in the mouth. It’s hard to mess up the corn casserole; even the kids can make that. And the gravy – made from the chicken drippings and also prepared by Mama – is just good on everything. It doesn’t even hurt an occasional foray into the fruit salad. 
God bless the gravy. And please make it and all it covers less fattening. Amen. 

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He    welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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