This week has been rainy and cold and I have been craving comfort food. When I was a child, comfort food meant grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. It also meant cinnamon raisin toast and hot chocolate. And of course it meant Mac and Cheese.
These delectable treats were lovingly provided by my mother and made from scratch. The hot chocolate was Droste’s and made with real sugar and milk. The marshmallows were the tiny ones that floated with abandon in the mug.
The grilled cheese was made with aged cheddar from my family’s cheese business. Campbells made the soup, but my mother added chopped chives or a swirl of sour cream to make it special.
The cinnamon raisin bread came from a local bakery and was toasted to perfection. It was then slathered with margarine and cut on a diagonal.
Mac and Cheese Does Not Come in a Box
I realize that for many folks, that box of Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese, with its elbow macaroni and dried orange powder represents the apex of culinary delight, but not in my house! At best, when time was tight and the grocery store was out of key ingredients, my family might deign to eat a Stouffer’s frozen Macaroni and Cheese, but NEVER KRAFT!
Instead, mac and cheese in my home was based on a recipe in the New Settlement Cookbook, requiring the basics and a secret ingredient – White Sauce #2. In case you are not familiar, basic white sauce (flour, butter, and cream) is the foundation of a slew of thickening agents used in soups, stews, and casseroles. Once you have this recipe down, you can branch out by adding cheese, onions, mushrooms or other additives that please the palette and expand the waistline.
Comfort Food Takes Time
Unlike the boxed version, this mac and cheese requires assembly and then baking. The assembly is actually part of the fun. Boiling the macaroni, then draining it. Putting together the vat of White Sauce #2, then adding the cheese until it becomes a rich and savory amalgam. Finally, combining the two parts into a whole and putting it all into a buttered casserole dish to be baked at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
Time does not fly when you are making mac and cheese. It takes a while, but once out of the oven, and after the bubbling sauce calms down, it is time to break the crusty, cheesy outer membrane and dip into the warm and pleasantly pliant inners and serve yourself up a bowl of yum.
Gluten-Free, Low-Fat Be Damned!
Unfortunately, I can no longer eat the mac and cheese I grew up with. What was wonderful as an active child is sheer hell for me now. My metabolism rarely punches above hibernation these days, so putting vast quantities of carbs and fats in my digestive system is akin to blocking sewer pipes with concrete.
Guides for healthy eating recommend substituting gluten-free this and fat-free that. While I appreciate all those well-intentioned skinny dietians’ attempts at approximating the sinful goodness of real carbs and fat, it just doesn’t satisfy me.
Alternatives seem to lie in just cultivating the memory (mindful eating) or eating portions so small as to require a magnifying lens. Again, less than satisfying, but also necessary at this stage of my life.
Finding a Happy Medium?
I have been doing a lot of reading about nutrition and aging. There is much research on how healthy foods contribute to overall wellness and unhealthy eating causes all kinds of problems. Consensus seems to be found in following the Mediterranean diet. This is a diet rich in whole grains, legumes, leafy greens, fruit, and nuts. Olive oil is preferred to butter. Protein is mostly derived from beans and the occasional fish, poultry, lamb, or beef.
You would think that if we all ate that way that we would all have low cholesterol, healthy hearts, and robust digestive systems. But we don’t! Seems there are other factors at play here.
Choosing What and How to Eat
If you are lucky enough to be able to exercise choice in what you eat, then it makes sense to try and follow the Med diet. For many aging adults, however, access to fresh is limited by proximity, location, price, and accessibility.
Convenience is a huge factor in how folks choose what to eat. If you don’t have pots, pans, and a stove, you may not be able to make a meal the way it is recommended. If you don’t know how to cook, you probably won’t be doing much meal planning. If you have your meals delivered or provided, you may not always have a say in what you are eating.
I can’t prove this, but anecdotally I know that when I share a table with other folks, my food tastes better and fills me up faster. I think I am responding to more than just the food. I think I have a positive gastronomic and nutritional response to the connection that sharing a meal brings.
When it’s just me and the TV, the food goes in, but I don’t necessarily get the same bang out of digesting. I suspect this mindless eating has accumulated around my middle and my butt and resides there as evidence of my isolation over the past couple of years. That may be a flimsy excuse, but it is a reasonable explanation, IMHO.
Change of Venue
Over the past few months, I have found myself visiting a friend of mine at dinner time. I bring something to share and we talk over the state of the world, solve everybody else’s problems, enjoy each other’s company and call it a night. The meals are healthy, small in portion size, and amazingly satisfying.
Because I am bringing food to share, I make sure it is healthy – something that I might not do if I were just cooking for myself! Because we enjoy each other’s company, in addition to the calories from food, we are ingesting human connection calories. Regardless of the caloric count, I am convinced that these meals do not contribute to weight gain, but I am richer for having eaten well and my heart feels full.
Comfort is More than Food
The comfort I derive from these Friday night dinners goes far beyond nutritional balances. It goes to the deeper need of being connected. It gives me something to do for someone else. It gives me a sense of purpose and the opportunity to experience joy in breaking bread together.
Here’s my recipe: find a diet that brings you comfort. Favorite foods in reasonable portions. Share with favorite friends to create memories and new traditions. Add a dose of laughter, a pinch of gossip, and a huge helping of love. Then dine on left-overs!
4 responses to “Comfort Food”
I love this vision. ….”The marshmallows were the tiny ones that floated with abandon in the mug.”
I just had this experience last night– a simple dinner with friends that filled both stomach and heart!
What an awesome article. It makes my heart sing! It seems that the connection of friends provides the calorie free ingredients to your meals! They may even burn a few calories!
Love your insights and writing style! Enthusiasm for connecting people!