Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Food for the heart.

 It was a cool (out of respect for my friends with snow I will refrain from saying "cold"), wet day yesterday here in my neck of the woods.  There was football on television and melancholy in the air.

Lately, I have craved soup.  I think the gray days have made me need something warm and comforting.  Soup is not usually one of my comfort foods, though.  My biggest comfort food is red beans and rice, by far.

I was born in New Orleans, although I really grew up in Florida.  My mom is not necessarily the best of cooks (sorry, Mom), but she made killer red beans and rice, having learned when we lived in Louisiana.  Since when I was growing up andouille sausage was not readily available where I lived, Mom used kielbasa, which worked wonderfully.  Rich, creamy, spicy bean gravy over white fluffy rice.  Hmmmmm.

I'm the only one in my household who likes proper red beans and rice.  The carnivores hate beans, and the vegetarians keep insisting that I should make a vegetarian version.  Just... no.  Real red beans and rice is never vegetarian, since it contains both bacon or pancetta (you use the fat to cook the "trinity" -- onion, celery, green pepper) and sausage, preferably andouille.*

It is more than a dish.  It is a reminder of someone who loves me.

There is such a connection between food and love, and food and places. 

My very earliest memory is of food:  when I was about three, and we still lived in New Orleans, I would go in the back of a neighbor's VW Beetle (the very back, behind the back seat -- next to the window, standing up looking backwards) to get sno-cones.  Sno-cones still make me smile.

I have written how my memories are tied up in music.  They are tied up in food as well.

Mom is red beans and rice, and macaroni and cheese.  Not the fake-orange type: Mom used to make macaroni the way I taught my kids -- make pasta, drain, dump lots of real cheese in, stir.  If you get the proportions right, and the timing, you get really wonderful mac 'n' cheese that only needs black pepper or hot sauce. And the best banana pudding ever:  the Rocket Scientist likes my cooking better than Mom's, except for the banana pudding.  When we're with her, she always makes it for him.  As I said, food as love.

Food as family: turkey and stuffing, sweet potatoes, ambrosia, relics of so many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with me and my kids, or with the Rocket Scientist's family.

Food as time and place:  Grouper, shrimp, scallops are Florida, and home.  As are tangelos from the tree and okra.  Egg noodles with parmesan cheese (we had a big box of them on my floor at Wellesley one year) are college, as is clam chowder (what I would not give for a bowl of chowder from No-Name's), as is oddly, sometimes, tea. I never really drank tea before college, but Wellesley is a civilized place, and every Wednesday afternoon we would have tea (no silver tea service, sadly) in the living room of the dorm.  There are the other school memories: graduate school and Georgia Tech was homemade bread** and fresh ground beef made into the best chili ever.  Law school was Jose's Caribbean food and Rick's Rather Rich Ice Cream.

Food memories are made all the time:  jambalaya is not associated with New Orleans, but with my former parish and a parishioner who would make jambalaya and gumbo for Mardi Gras. Apple Martinis are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I had my first two (and was correspondingly buzzed) and wandered around looking at the paintings and giggling.  Latkes are my housemate, the Resident Shrink, who is Jewish and who, in what is becoming a tradition, makes them for the family the second or third day of Hanukkah.

Food brings travel memories, most of them almost stereotypical: tapas and churros con chocolat are Madrid; real vanilla ice cream and crepes, Paris; fruit-flavored beer, Belgium; fish and chips, London; meat pastries, Bath.

There is joy in creating other people's memories.  My brownies are making memories, for my children and others.  My chocolate pudding has become a comfort food of the first order for at least two people in my house.

My hope is one day, my kids will say... "It's a miserable day.  Let's make some brownies to cheer ourselves up."

I will be smiling in my grave.

*One of the members of my household who is most bemused about my insistence on non-veg red beans is a New Yorker who refuses to accept that either proper pizza or (especially) proper bagels exist outside the five boroughs.

**I have sourdough starter in my fridge that is older than my eldest son, that has been transported across country four times.  The pioneers would be proud of us.

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