Monday, November 17, 2008

Comfort food

I'm in a domestic mood. Not the cleaning kind of domestic mood, but a cooking and baking and making holiday gifts kind of domestic mood. I get this way around the holidays. I get this way other times of the year -- most times of the year. There is something so soothing and Zen about cooking and baking, about creating something for someone to enjoy, or just for myself. With T-day right around the corner, I'm thinking about turkey and chestnut stuffing and pumpkin souffles or pumpkin creme brulee instead of pie. I'm thinking of sweet potato pecan pie with brandied cream. I'm making a list and checking it twice.

When I was younger, cooking was a place where I could go to tune out the noise and strife and feel safe and comfortable. Everything makes sense in the kitchen. Ingredients measure out and delicious aromas spread throughout the house, leaving behind smiles and contentment, at least for me and once upon a time for my children when they were young. Not so much for my ex-husband; he preferred the greasy, hot smell of fish and chips or shrimp and fries to cream puffs and ham with nectarine-brown sugar glaze. He didn't stick around long for the deer meat stew or cranberry-apple crepes with whipped cream and a dusting of confectioner's sugar. He wasn't into the smells and tastes of home cooking, coming as he did from a home where spices and even salt and pepper were outlawed as foreign substances The idea of taking a chicken or turkey carcass, some vegetables and herbs and putting them in a big pot to make a base for soup or gravy was tantamount to witchcraft and he wasn't fond of witches.

I taught my boys at a very young age about kitchen safety and cooking, allowing them to help measure and mix and pipe homemade cream into the cream puffs or dust them with powdered sugar. They could cook pancakes and make oatmeal when they were very young, before they were old enough to go to school, and they knew how to hull strawberries and pit cherries. I taught them the same way my grandmother taught me. One of the boys even considered becoming a chef before he found out he could make more money selling modular homes. I'm still sad about that, but it's his life.

Growing up around my grandparents, I learned that the best and most lasting way to say, "I love you," was by cooking and baking. My grandfather made the best vegetable beef soup I have ever had, bar none. Grandma made everything else without a recipe, knowing automatically how much of each ingredient she needed to make every meal special. I learned to make milk gravy and fry chicken standing beside her on a kitchen chair with one of her aprons tied twice around my waist. Pies, cakes, red flannel hash, fried rabbit, stuffed turkey, combination salad, ambrosia, and every good thing she taught me and I enjoyed every minute of it.

When I was married, barely out of high school with a child on the way, I wandered off the tried and true culinary path and found comfort in cookbooks and exotic ingredients when I lived far away from home. It was too expensive to call home more than once or twice a year, so I stayed close to home in my heart with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that I learned from my grandmother, promising myself that each new dish or dessert I learned I'd share with her when I saw her again -- and I did, introducing her to French cuisine and Asian cooking, Greek pastries and Spanish paella. She enjoyed it all as much as I enjoyed sharing what I'd learned with her and we had a standing weekly date for lunch when I cooked something different every time.

I've traveled a lot since I left home and I've found the quickest way to make friends through food, learning ethnic dishes and sharing my favorites. Pot luck meant a creative melange of foods and aromas that would at first thought clash but complemented perfectly through the spice of friendship. I still would rather have friends to dinner or give baskets and gifts of food for the holidays. It's my favorite celebration for a party, impromptu guests or a picnic lunch out under the broad canvas of the Colorado blue sky -- or any sky. There's something special about sunshine and homemade food that smooths out the rough edges and awkward moments and breeds contentment and friendship. Winter, summer, spring or fall make no difference. There are recipes and comfort enough for all.

That is all. Disperse.

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