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Definition Essay Comfort Food

1.
Early on in Gabrielle Hamilton’s memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter she describes her work as a cook at a summer camp. The meals she prepared there were suited to the palate of picky, allergy-prone children: buttered noodles, innocuous vegetables, gallons upon gallons of milk. But one camper impresses Hamilton by appearing at the kitchen window with unexpected requests for items like balsamic vinegar and fresh Parmesan. “Oh, little Emma!” she writes. “…I could’ve kissed her every morning for appreciating the food and even daring to make make it a little more ‘adult’ at every meal.”

When Parent’s Visiting Day arrives, Hamilton meets Emma’s father.

“I’m Mark. Mark Bittman,” he says by way of casual introduction.

Because my own father was not a cookbook author, or New York Times columnist, but rather a bewildered, suddenly single father, I didn’t appreciate balsamic vinegar or even vegetables as a child. Thrust unwittingly into parenthood following my mother’s death, the meals my father prepared for me were his best bachelor staples. There was tuna straight from the can, no mayo, with a pickle on the side. This was called “The Daddy Special” and was my favorite. There was corned beef hash fried with an egg, which my father explained they’d eaten while he was in Vietnam and was thusly christened, “Vietnam Breakfast”. And there was, much to the consternation of my Montessori school teachers, lunches packed with a delicacy called “The Mustard Sandwich”. This was white bread, slathered with yellow mustard, the crusts neatly eliminated.

My father presented these meals with flourish, and because nearly every thing we ate had a story and a reason, I never felt deprived of variety, or flavor, or nutrients. He seemed to me the greatest chef in all the world and food had a kind of magical quality to it. It filled me up just right. In this way, like most of us do, I came to understand the act of preparing and consuming meals as a way of expressing love. These sad but perfect little dinners formed the basis of how I would understand and relate to food.

2.
This idea of the “magical” quality of food is at work as well in Aimee Bender’s stunning novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, out in paperback this week. Focusing on the unique gift of a young girl to taste and feel the emotions of those who have prepared meals for her, Bender creates a heartbreaking scenario. What if the very thing that is meant to nourish you also fills you with the unwanted knowledge of the secrets, longings, and most hidden desires of all who have come into contact with your food? It is almost too much for Rose Edelstein, the young heroine of the novel, who discovers her gift while eating a piece of lemon chocolate cake baked by her mother. She tries to sort out what exactly it is she is feeling, “None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were surrounding a hollowness…in each bite: absence, hunger, spiraling hollows.”

In Blood, Bones, and Butter, just as in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, food takes on a kind of shamanistic quality. The import of food, its ability to nourish or harm, is no less bound up in superstition and belief in Hamilton’s memoir than it is in Bender’s novel. Both women explore the ways in which food affects us on an emotional level. When a 12-year-old Hamilton’s family disintegrates and both parents decamp for whereabouts largely unknown, the teenager is left to fend for herself. After being raised for so many years at the whim of her French mother’s oily wooden spoon and sitting for dinners of marrow and rabbit and pigeon pie, suddenly she must make do with the remnants left behind in the pantry – sardines on stale Triscuits and parsley picked from the unattended garden. It is within the context of this abandonment that Hamilton fibs her way into her first restaurant job, learning not only to provide for herself, but also beginning a career that will eventually see her become the incredibly successful chef/owner of the East Village restaurant, Prune.

Bender’s Rose Edelstein must make different concessions towards food. Barely able to handle the stunning complexity of a sandwich made by a young woman desperate for love, or soup prepared by an angry, spiteful chef, or even baked chicken served by her searching and aching mother, Rose finds respite in factory produced foods. In these she can taste the flatness of the untouched ingredients, the particular tang of the chemicals, but she cannot taste heartache, yearning, or fear, and in that she finds solace. In junior high, a security officer finds her perched on her knees in front of the vending machine.

I thought I liked Oreos, he chuckled. I love them, I told him solemnly, gripping the bag…I did not know how I would get through the day without that machine at school; I prayed those thank yous to it, and whoever stocked it, and whoever had brought it, every night.

3.
This kind of intense emotional attachment to food is not really so different from my own experiences. When my father died, I stubbornly refused to eat. There were platters of cheese, endless lasagnas, stacks of pies covered in tin foil. My family foisted treats upon me, begging me to eat, and I stubbornly denied them. My stomach churned angrily with its own acids and I soon found I wasn’t actually hungry after all. It made me powerful, this ability to resist nourishment, to feel uncomfortable and light-headed. It was selfish, I realize now, and when I finally ate a piece of apple pie, my grandmother nearly cried with relief.

Later in life, at the tail end of a prolonged, inevitable breakup, I found I actually had lost the ability to eat. Once, as things were coming to an end, my then-boyfriend and I had had to transfer his father’s ashes into a large Ziploc freezer bag to send away to an insistent and irritating woman who had claimed a stake on them. It was a task we’d both been putting off and when we decided finally to simply get it over with, we realized we had no real plan for how we would accomplish it. Using a makeshift funnel, I held open the freezer bag and he poured in the chunky black and gray ashes. A fine powder of bone fragments wafted up and though we quickly turned away, I found I tasted sediment in my mouth all day, no matter how many times I furiously brushed my teeth. When our breakup was over and done with, it suddenly felt as if everything I tried to eat was filtered though that same horrible, chalky grit. For a time I couldn’t eat without vomiting. I lost weight. I was told how great I looked at first, but later these same people cautiously told me I looked a bit thin and asked if I was feeling okay. On the subway I would see stars and had to beg for a seat.

In Blood, Bones, and Butter, Hamilton describes her vision for what she wanted Prune to be. “The waiter to bring you something to eat or drink that you didn’t even ask for when you arrived cold and early and undone by your day in the city.” In The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Bender’s heroine discovers that there is certain food she can face up to and even enjoy: honest food, filled with emotion yes, but also with appreciation. What I wanted most in those days after my father’s death was Vietnam Breakfast. When I couldn’t eat in my post-breakup malaise, one of the few things I craved was the mustard sandwich of my childhood. Because there is some food, whether it be Oreos or veal marrow, which holds significance far outside of the act of chewing and swallowing. Food that has a healing, unexplainable, even magical quality.

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Leah Carroll is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has contributed to the Atlantic.com and the New York Times. Twitter: @leahcarroll


Essay on Comfort Food


What is "comfort food"? The standard definition is a dish that's simple to prepare and which conveys a sense of well-being when you indulge in it. Most often, I think, it's something we identify nostalgically with childhood, which is why a peanut butter & jelly sandwich is perhaps the classic comfort food. So is tomato soup. I've gotten involved in several discussions with other foodies on the subject of comfort food, which got me thinking about it in somewhat more detail.






Peanut Butter Sandwich

Ah, yes. Peanut butter sandwiches, the favorite food group of the average ten-year-old. It's hard to think of any eating material (as Alton Brown might say) that is more a matter of personal taste and preference. What kind of bread? Crusts or no crusts? What kind of jelly, or jam, or whatever? What else might go in the sandwich? It can be as simple as plain ol' Skippy's and Welch's grape jelly on fluffy white bread. That's what I used to make, back in the early '50s. But I became more sophisticated over the years. I still eat a P.B. & J. probably once a week or so, often late at night, when I want a little something but don't want to "cook" anything.

But now, by preference — and by that, I mean this is the only way to make a really good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as far as I'm concerned — it starts with crusty Italian bread, if I have any, sliced as thin as I can get it, since I'll have to fit two thicknesses in my mouth. If there's none of that handy, I usually have Peppridge Farm Seeded Rye or Pumpernickel in the breadbox. (Yes, I own a breadbox.) The peanut butter has to be Peter Pan (I've tried all the other major brands and this is still the best), it has to be Crunchy (texture, you know), and, when I can find it, it needs to be the kind with honey added (nice extra flavor). The fruit component can be any of several things, depending on what I currently have open: Dundee Orange Marmalade (the kind that comes in a little crock — yum!), or raspberry or blackberry preserves, or something else with seeds in it. I don't often eat smooth jelly and jam these days. (Texture again.) What about extras? Usually, the three main ingredients are fine. Sometimes, I'll slice a banana and add that, but that's about it. Don't want to spoil the perfect midnight snack.






Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Back in the early 1970s, when I was in grad school (the first time), I lived near campus for convenience but I worked full-time at the main public library in a city an hour's commute away. Like almost all librarians, I worked late one night a week and, especially in the winter, driving my VW Beetle home after 9:00 p.m. in the cold rain, being blown sideways by passing semis, was an exhausting end to a day spent answering reference questions. By the time I got back to my apartment, I was usually too wired to go straight to bed, so I generally fixed myself a little something and read or watched TV for awhile while my brain decompressed. A little something easy, and hot. Very often, that meant a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of cold milk.

My mother, like all mothers, had a repertoire of quick, easy lunches and snacks that would keep the kids out of her hair in the afternoon, and she hooked me on grilled cheese at an early age. But she didn't use a skillet. Sometime back in the 1940s or early '50s, she had acquired a small electric sandwich grill consisting of a flat lower plate and a very heavy hinged upper plate that pressed straight down on the sandwich. Both surfaces were smooth metal, so the sandwich came out rather shiny and rather thin. (I loved to watch it cook and shrink.) When I graduated from college and moved into my own place, I finally got up the nerve to ask my mother (who no longer had kids at home) if I could possibly have that grill — and found that my brother had asked first, dammit.

Anyway, I've never seen another grill like that, so I use a skillet and I've also devised a few variations and developed a few rules over the years:

1. Use good cheese, like real Cheddar or Gruyere. I'm partial to Longhorn. But definitely not Velveeta! This is the heart of the thing, so why scrimp?

2. If you have the time and the energy, grate the cheese first. It will melt more evenly.

3. Try adding a little Dijon mustard and freshly-grated black pepper before you grill it. Sometimes I add a little mayo (or, to be honest, Miracle Whip). I like to add a couple of slices of dill pickle, too. Some people put a slice or two of tomato in there, or even some salsa. That might make it too wet, though.

4. Instead of buttering the outside, try olive oil. It's a different and rather interesting taste — if you like olive oil, and I do. It's also less greasy and less fattening.

5. You can use plain ol' white sandwich bread, as my mother did back in the Eisenhower era, but a heavier type of bread holds up better. I like thinly-sliced Italian bread. Or, if you're just a white bread kind of person, Pepperidge Farm Buttermilk White is a pretty good compromise.

6. Use high heat and don't be impatient. Give it 4-5 minutes, turning the sandwich over every minute or so and pressing down firmly with a metal spatula or a flatiron.

7. Ideally, you should use a cast iron skillet. (You own one, don't you? Of course you do.)






Lebkuchen

Now that I'm more or less retired, I cook more than I used to, but I don't often bake, at least not from scratch. (Boxed brownie mix doesn't count, nor do store-bought pie shells.) My mother, naturally, was an accomplished cake- and cookie-baker. My job when I was little used to be sifting the flour and I finally graduated to rolling out the pie crust dough, my reward for which was licking the frosting bowl when she made a cake.

When we lived in Germany, my mother discovered a whole new array of cookies and other baked goods beyond those with which she had grown up in Indiana. She always made dozens each of eight or ten types of cookies in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but what I really remember is the Lebkuchen she would make back around Thanksgiving. After baking, they went into a stack of fruitcake tins sealed with waxed paper and stacked on top of the refrigerator to age for a few weeks. I was aware of them, taunting me silently, every time I entered the kitchen. I was also aware of the dire consequences that would befall me if my mother ever caught me getting into them ahead of their proper time.

She continued to make Lebkuchen after we returned to the States, and even after I left home, when I came back to visit at Christmas time I usually received my very own fruitcake tin full of delicious, chewy cookies. After she was widowed, she still lived in her own house, but after awhile she became too infirm to cook, much less to bake cookies. I've attempted Lebkuchen myself any number of times over the years and, while the results aren't bad (my own kids certainly consumed them without hesitation), they've never come even close to what I remember.

This is my mother's version of the standard recipe, which will temporarily empty out your spice rack:

1-1/3 cups honey
1/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
3½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon candied fruit (mixed fruit is best)
1 tablespoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon cardamom
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Spray 10"x15" glass pan with non-stick spray. Preheat oven to 325°. In a 2-cup measuring cup, heat honey and brown sugar in the microwave for 1 minute, and pour into a medium-sized mixing bowl.

Sift together 2 cups of flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Add to the honey mixture, stirring well. Add candied fruit, oil, and all spices, mixing in by hand. Add 1-½ to 2 cups more flour (starting with 1½ cups and adding more if you need it). Knead dough well to mix everything together; it will be stiff. Spread into the pan.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. (I didn't put those on the ingredient list, but I assume that anyone who cooks at all keeps a box of toothpicks in a lower drawer next to the oven.) Cut into squares and allow to cool. You can ice this with sugar glaze, but I prefer them plain. Separate the squares and pack them into fruitcake tins or something similar, sealing with a sheet of waxed paper. Really — it has to be as near air-tight as possible. Store on top of the refrigerator, or in a cupboard away from heat, for two or three weeks at least. The result will be nice and chewy. Yields about 2 dozen cookies. Don't forget to share. Better yet, take a tin of these to work and leave them open on your desk. Morale will soar.

NOTE: Probably you will want to make more than a single dozen of these. I have found that you can double the recipe with no problem. Just use bigger bowls, and so on. Multiplying it by three times or more, however, is asking for trouble as the material at its various stages simply becomes unwieldy. If you want, say, 8 dozen cookies, you really want to make 4 dozen in a batch — a double recipe — and simply go through the whole thing twice. Trust me. I found all this out the hard way.






Scrambled Eggs with Chorizo

As I get older, the size of breakfast I'm comfortable consuming has shrunk. I used to routinely go through a full truck-stop meal of eggs, bacon or sausage, grits, biscuits, juice, and coffee, but these days I'm more often content with a pot of coffee and a bowl of grits, or maybe a bagel (preferably onion) with cream cheese (preferably pineapple). Every couple of weeks, though, especially when it's chilly and wet out in the morning, and if I don't have to be anyplace else before noon, I'll get more ambitious.

When I was a kid, my father, a career Army officer who had learned to cook in self-defense when he was assigned overseas and living in the BOQ, was in charge of Sunday breakfasts. He went through fads, depending on where we were stationed at the time, but whatever he fixed, it almost always involved scrambled eggs. He told me once that when he was younger, he had found himself unable to break an egg into a frying pan without busting the yolk, so he made a virtue of necessity and stuck to scrambling them. And I learned from him. I was in my twenties before I would voluntarily eat fried eggs. My father also didn't add milk; he didn't approve of fluffy scrambled eggs, just stirring them with a granny fork until they began to curdle. But he always added scallions or cheese or garlic or mushrooms or tomatoes or chopped-up leftover roast beef or ham — something, anyway. Nothing so fancy as an actual omelet, just "scrambled eggs with."

Living in San Antonio in my teenage years, I acquired a taste for the spicy Mexican-style sausage called chorizo, and it turned out to be especially good in eggs. And that's still my preferred "large" breakfast: Scrambled eggs (no milk) with chorizo and tomatoes, biscuits and sausage gravy, and a big pot of coffee (with a teaspoon of milk per mug, no sugar).

This is my rendition of the recipe, expanded a little to feed several other people:

8 oz bulk chorizo
8 large eggs
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup milk (if you really must)
1 medium-sized fresh tomato (peeled, seeded, and chopped)
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ teaspoon dried oregano (optional, but a nice additional flavor)

Cook the chopped onion in a 10-inch skillet until tender but not brown. Crumble in the sausage out of its casing (which you don't eat!), cooking and stirring until done, about 15 minutes. Drain off the excess grease.

While the sausage is cooking, lightly beat the eggs, milk, oregano, salt, and pepper with a granny fork in a bowl. Pour over the sausage in the skillet. Cook without stirring until the eggs begin to set on the bottom. Now, you can leave it like that, lifting the edges of the egg so the uncooked part can run underneath, in which case you get more of an omelet, or maybe a frittata, which you can cut into pie-wedges to serve. I like to stir the mixture a little, breaking it up into chunks. But don't stir too vigorously or the eggs will get tough. Cook about three minutes, until the eggs are just about fully set but still moist, then stir in the tomato. Serve hot. Yields 4-6 servings.






Magic Lemon Meringue Pie with Graham Cracker Crust

When I was a kid, the tradition in my house was that you could pick the kind of cake you wanted for your birthday, and my mother, an accomplished baker, would make it. We wandered from the "cake" theme pretty early, though; as far as I can remember, my father always asked for cherry pie. My kid brother wanted as much chocolate as could be forced into a cake and, while I couldn't argue with his motives, I had my own favorite.

When I was learning how to read, I spent a lot of time sitting on the kitchen floor in the afternoons, working through the recipes in my mother's dozens of cookbooks while she cooked supper, and asking for explanations of unfamiliar ingredients and cooking directions. I also read the labels on all the cans in the pantry, including the little recipe booklet that came glued to the top of the Eagle Brand Condensed Milk can. (That particular tin fascinated me because, like evaporated milk, it lacked a raised edge around the top. There was nothing to hang the can opener on. That changed, though.) One of the recipes was for Magic Lemon Meringue Pie with Graham Cracker Crust. I don't remember whether it was my suggestion or my mother's, but she finally made that pie one day, and I was hooked. For the remainder of my time at home, until I went off to college, Magic Lemon Meringue Pie was always my choice of birthday "cake," every single year. I still make it about once a year.

If you can get that silly-looking can open, this is really not difficult to make:

1¼ cups crushed graham crackers (about 20-24 squares)
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¾ stick butter, melted
2 eggs, separated
1 can (14 oz) Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk
½ cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup sugar

For the crust: Mix together graham cracker crumbs and sugar and stir this into the melted butter, mixing well. Press mixture firmly into a 9-inch glass pie pan. (Yes, it needs to be glass for this one, not metal.) I simply chill the crusted pan for an hour before filling it, but you can also bake it at 375° for about 7 minutes and allow to cool.

For the filling: Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks and stir in the condensed milk, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Pour into the pie shell.

For the meringue: In a small bowl, beat the egg whites with cream of tartar until foamy. Gradually add sugar, beating until stiff but not dry. Spread meringue on top of pie, sealing it carefully to the edge of the shell. Bake 15 minutes, or until meringue is golden brown. Allow to cool, then chill before serving. Refrigerate the leftovers — if you have any.






Red Beans and Rice with Cornbread

I don't know why it is, exactly, but what people consider "comfort food" — the dishes they fix at the end of an especially bad week, the things that remind them of childhood, back when there was someone else they could depend on to make the decisions — are generally what can also be thought of as "peasant food." Basic stuff like macaroni and cheese or chess pie or chicken soup or tamales, or even peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, right? I don't know of anyone who turns to artichokes or paella when their soul is in need of hand-holding.

In the South and Southwest, pinto beans, rice, and cornbread are about as "peasant" as you can get. Beans, rice, and corn also make up what Indians in the Southwest called the "Trinity," an almost perfectly balanced source of nutrition that doesn't require much meat protein. Before the advent of McDonalds and Lean Cuisine, Anglo kids in south Texas grew up with this stuff, too. And even now, there's not much that can compare to a big bowl of fluffy rice with a couple of ladles of red beans poured over it, with hot buttered jalapeno cornbread and a tall glass of cold milk on the side. It's good for whatever ails your psyche.

There are a lot of regional and ethnic versions of this staple, but this is how I make it:

2 cups kidney beans, washed & drained
6 cups water
Meat scraps (ham or pork, preferably) for seasoning, or bacon drippings, or what have you
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
4 tablespoons parsley, chopped
2 large bay leaves, crushed

Put beans in water. Season with salt and bacon drippings, or ham, or other seasoning meat. Simmer 1½-2 hours. Add onion, garlic, celery, and bay leaves. Continue to cook over low heat for about 1 hour. If beans become too dry, add a little more heated water.

Adding 2 tablespoons of sugar will improve the whole thing amazingly. Serve over mounds of cooked white rice.

Yields 8 servings.

*     *     *     *     *

You can also do this successfully with black beans, which are very popular in South Louisiana:

2 cups dried black beans
1 medium or large onion, chopped
3 quarts water
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cover beans in a bowl of cold water and soak for 10 hours, or overnight. (There will be about 2½ cups of beans after soaking.) Drain and remove any broken or discolored beans.

Place beans in a large pot with onion, water, salt, pepper, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 2½-3 hours, or until beans are tender. Stir about once every hour; after first 2 hours cooking time, check to be sure beans still have enough water to cover the bottom of the pot. Discard bay leaf.

*     *     *     *     *

And the cornbread:

1½ cups cornmeal
2½ cups milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup white sugar
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons minced jalapenos

Preheat oven to 400°. In a small bowl, combine cornmeal and milk; let stand for 5 minutes. Grease a 9"x13" baking pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Mix in the cornmeal mixture, eggs and oil until smooth. Add the jalapenos. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake 30-35 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cornbread comes out clean.

VARIATION: Sometimes I add about ¾ cup of drained whole kernel corn at the same time as the jalapenos.






Guacamole

My paternal grandfather was an Iowa farm boy who got fed up with winters on the Plains and moved to San Diego in the 1920s. My father mostly grew up there, except for a few years in the Depression when they had to retreat to the family farm to survive. Their San Diego property (which is now in the heart of Pacific Beach and I really wish they had kept it . . .) orginally included a small grove of avocado trees, which had been introduced from Mexico only a few years before. Avocados were a bit too exotic even for my adventurous grandfather, I think, and he never seemed to entirely trust them. But my father grew up with them and loved them.

When they were in season, I remember there always seemed to be a row of the things ripening on the kitchen window ledge in San Antonio. (Another window usually had a row of styrofoam cups with avocado seeds in various stages of sprouting.) My father liked to wait until they got nice and soft, and then he'd peel one and spread a slice of it, raw, on pumpernickel bread. That was a bit too concentrated a flavor-hit when I was in high school, but I was already a devotée of guacamole. It's incredibly fattening, of course, and I have to be careful these days not to over-indulge, but I still love it.

There are lots of variations, but this is how I make it — and you must use only the Haas variety, with the warty-looking greenish-black skin:

2 ripe Haas avocados
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (better than lemon juice)
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 small tomato, seeded & choppe
d 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (from your herb garden, right?)
Dash of salt & freshly-ground black pepper
1 small clove garlic, minced
Dash of Tabasco

Mash the avocados in a bowl with a granny fork. (Don't stuff them in a blender in an attempt to get a smooth paste. This stuff is supposed to be lumpy.) Stir in lemon juice. Stir in remaining ingredients. Serve immediately, preferably with freshly-made tostados (wedges of corn tortillas fried in oil in a skillet).

It's unlikely you'll have any left (not in my family, anyway), but if you have to refrigerate the leftovers, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, lightly pressing the plastic into direct contact with the guacamole. Avocado darkens after contact with air.






Macaroni and Cheese

Ths is another of those dishes that is so ubiquitous, there is no "standard" recipe. Do you make Béchamel sauce or use sour cream? Cheddar or Velveeta? (This is actually the only semi-legitimate use I can think of for Velveeta.) Bread crumbs or potato chips? Elbow macaroni or shells? Oven or stove-top? I don't know where my mother got her recipe — no actual published source, probably — but I suspect it was a variant of the standard Fannie Farmer or Betty Crocker 1940s version.

My mother thought supper should have a proper entreé, usually meat, plus a vegetable and a starch, so she tended to view mac and cheese as a side dish. (I remember it went well with pan-fried pork chops.) Sometimes, though, when the press of Friday night dates and other family activities got to be too much, she'd make macaroni and cheese and just set it on the counter with a stack of bowls and spoons and a loaf of crusty French bread and tell us all to help ourselves whenever we had time. More than once, I brought a date home after a dance and we refueled with a bowl of late-night leftover macaroni and cheese at the kitchen table.

My kids, in the '60s and '70s, influenced by their friends' mothers, seemed to think mac and cheese came in a box. I confess I actually have eaten the "convenient" version a few times, with its synthetic/plastic "cheese-food" sauce, but only when I was desperate. And I always felt guilty afterward.

Anyway, this is how I do macaroni and cheese:

2 cups (8 oz) elbow macaroni
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2½ cups cold milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup grated onion
½ teaspoon dry mustard
¼ teaspoon Worcestershire
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1½ cups (6 oz) shredded Cheddar
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup bread crumbs (I like the seasoned Italian type)

Butter a 2-quart casserole and set aside.

Bring water to rapid boil in 4-quart saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon salt and oil. Gradually add macaroni, being sure water continues to boil. Cook macaroni uncovered until tender but firm, stirring occasionally. Drain. Place in prepared casserole.

In a medium saucepan, blend milk into cornstarch. Add ¼ cup butter or margarine, onion, mustard, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low.

Stir in cheese. Continue stirring until cheese melts. Spoon over macaroni.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter or margarine. in small skillet. Stir bread crumbs in melted butter to toast lightly. Sprinkle toasted bread crumbs over casserole. Place casserole in cold oven. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes until golden.

Yields about 6 servings.






Biscuits with Sausage Cream Gravy

People (especially Northerners) sometimes make fun of a breakfast that includes cream gravy slopped over biscuits because it's not sufficiently aesthetic. I think that's mostly because they've only been exposed to really bad cream gravy, and there's certainly plenty of that around — especially the greasy, tasteless paste served at Denny's. The real thing, as rural Southerners know, is a fantastic accompaniment to a couple of fried eggs and a pot of black coffee. And the real thing must include crumbled-up pork sausage, preferably Jimmy Dean's, which is spicier than Northern-style sausage. For some, biscuits and gravy is either a nice change from, or an addition to, grits as a side dish for breakfast.

A confession: Though I do know how to make scratch biscuits, I haven't actually done it in several years. I pop them out of a tube, like everyone else. And I much prefer Pillsbury Golden Homestyle Buttermilk Biscuits or Pillsbury Golden Layers Flaky Biscuits to any others I have tried.

Frankly, making biscuits takes considerable time and effort to do properly — about an hour, which is more than I'm willing to give at 7 a.m. Plus, I don't keep buttermilk on hand, and you simply can't make real biscuits without buttermilk.

Okay, enough excuses. This is how I make this kind of gravy:

1 lb Jimmy Dean sausage (I like the spicy kind)
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
Salt & black pepper to taste

Crumble and cook sausage in large skillet over medium heat until browned.

Stir in flour until dissolved. Gradually stir in milk. Cook gravy until thick and bubbly. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve hot over biscuits.






Basic Bread Pudding

This, again, is my grandmother's recipe, as filtered through my mother. It's a very simple dish, great for dessert after a steak and salad — or reheated for breakfast, which is how I remember my mother's father, the Irish railroad man. He worked for the Pennsy for nearly fifty years and in the '50s he ran the roundhouse in Toledo. He had to work odd hours sometimes (like when one of the switch engines broke down) and when he got home after a long night, what he wanted for breakfast was, not bacon and eggs, but a pot of coffee and bread pudding with a splash of milk on it.

When I was in college and getting around more, I discovered the New Orleans version, served with whiskey sauce, which can be pretty good if you pick the right restaurant. But my grandmother's family were South Indiana Methodists and the thought of putting booze on her bread pudding would have made her extremely uncomfortable.

1½ cups bread cubes
3 cups milk
2 eggs
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ cup seedless raisins

Soak bread in milk for ½ hour. Beat eggs. Gradually add sugar. Beat in salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in raisins. Combine egg mixture with bread. Pour into a greased oven-proof dish and set in a pan of hot water. Bake at 350° for 45-50 minutes.

Variation: Use half heavy cream and half milk for a much richer pudding. Try using cinnamon rolls instead of bread.






Wienerschnitzel

As I've mentioned, I grew up in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, the son of a career officer, and we lived in Germany for several years. This was when Germany was still under allied occupation (no American coinage allowed, just undersized paper scrip in various denominations, and so forth), before the "economic miracle" had really gotten started, when Germany still possessed some of the characteristics of a temporary American colony.

In the cellar of the Rathaus in our town, there was a small, family-style restaurant called the Bunker (referring to its role in the war, presumably) which served extremely good Wienerschnitzel. I realize, per the name, that this is actually a Viennese dish, but American military families weren't allowed to travel to Vienna in those days (or Berlin either, for security reasons), so I was exposed only to the German version.

Schnitzel is very thinly-cut veal in a light breading that doesn't actually adhere to the meat. In fact, one traditional test of a good schnitzel is the ability to slide your butter knife between the crust and the meat without damaging either. (Another test is being able to actually sit down on the schnitzel for a moment in flannel trousers without getting a grease stain on the seat of your pants.) For a family, the schnitzels at the Rathaus were brought to the table arranged in an overlapping cascade on a big metal platter that sat atop two or three candle-powered food-warmers, and you served yourself from that. Plus green beans and vinegary German-styled cooked potatoes with crumbled bacon (sometimes called "warm potato salad," which it isn't, really).

After we returned to the States, I dreamed regularly for years about those mouth-watering schnitzel. (And I can still taste them.) And this was one dish my mother never fixed at home because proper veal was so hard to find — and when you did find it, it was way beyond our budget.

Another place, rather fancier and more expensive, but with more ambience, was the Eisen Hut (hotel and restaurant) in nearby Rothenberg. The name means "Iron Hat" and there was a 16th centuy Habsburg-style helmet hanging over the front door. They went the classic dish one better with Veal Cordon Bleu, which in this case meant slicing the already thin cutlet through the middle and inserting an equally thin slice of Westphalian ham (this is the German version, remember) and some Emmental cheese. God, it makes me drool just thinking about it. . . .

I've tried making this only a couple of times in the past forty years. It's a lot of work, especially for "comfort food," and I don't think I've ever really gotten it right. Plus, these days I have trouble making myself pay for a ribeye, much less high-quality veal. Therefore, this is the only dish on this page that does not include a recipe. If you live in a part of the country that includes a tradition of German and Austrian cooking, consider youself fortunate. And if you know of a comfortable little family restaurant that turns out a good Schnitzel, cherish it.