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Continuing the comfort food conversation

January 31, 2012

Not too many weeks ago, around the holidays, we began a discussion of comfort food. In that column, I suggested that at least one aspect of it had to do with the traditions with which certain dishes were connected. But comfort food — despite its seeming simplicity — is a much more complex subject than that.
What people like to eat is a personal topic — everybody has an opinion and those opinions vary greatly — it’s personal.  Everybody has his or her own taste buds, too. One might think that genes had something to do with that, but one might be mistaken. Most observers agree that of my two children, Daughter bears the most physical resemblance to me (I’m sure opinions will vary on that, too), but her taste buds are not remotely like mine. From the planet Krypton, maybe. But not from me. 
All that to say this: defining comfort foods would be a serious challenge. For that reason, I choose to discuss it rather than define it. 
January’s issue of “Southern Living” devoted its cover to the idea of southern comfort foods.   They didn’t really define them; rather, they took five common dishes and challenged southern chefs to put their unique spin on each one. I’m not going to repeat what they said (I think they call that plagiarism), but I will borrow their list and tell my own stories.
First on the “SL” list was meatloaf. Meatloaf seems to be the brunt of many jokes, much like fruitcake, because unless you made it, you never know what’s in it. It also seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it kind of dishes. Indeed, it can be boring, but it doesn’t have to be.  In our house growing up, I remember only one recipe being used, and I still like it today. We know it as Aunt Sybil’s Meatloaf. It’s not fancy, just good. The most unique aspect of the recipe, one that I haven’t seen in others I have used, is pouring boiling water over the loaf before baking it. I suppose it sears the outside, in an odd kind of way, and also helps keep it from drying out.  In more recent years, my son won a prize in a cooking contest using deer meat and shredded potatoes as the primary meatloaf ingredients. And like so many other comfort foods, sometimes the leftovers are better than the original meal — it’s hard to beat a good meatloaf sandwich on day two or three. 
Next up was chicken-fried steak. This is not a dish I’ve ever tackled in the kitchen, though I have done some damage in a restaurant or two. One of these days I want to get out to Noble, Oklahoma, to Kendall’s Restaurant, owned by Starkville High graduate Dee Downer.  Kendall’s famous in those parts for chicken-fried steak and cinnamon rolls (another comfort food candidate), even offering a prize for anyone completing the “Chicken-Fried Challenge.”  Last I heard, nobody had ever completed it — I’d love to take a stab at it, though I might need to walk to Oklahoma to rationalize the calories.  
Shrimp and grits was the next dish to make the Southern Living cut. I love this meal, as I have testified in previous columns, but I don’t think I would put it in my top ten comfort foods as a completed combination. Someone from the low country of South Carolina probably would, however. Remember, opinions vary. Grits alone, on the other hand, can be very comforting: warm, steamy, and very filling in their natural state, even with the minimum salt, pepper and a little pool of butter. These days the grit can also be found as a side dish for lunch or dinner, usually with a more fanciful touch — maybe even deep fried if you’re lucky. I like ‘em all. 
If you are a devotee of Dave Ramsey’s financial advice, you’ll know the phrase “beans and rice, rice and beans.” That’s one of Dave’s sure-fire ways to get out of debt, by eating pretty much only that.  Both components are readily available and cheap, thus comforting to a lot of folks, especially in economic rough patches. That may be why it’s an international comfort food of sorts — I’ve enjoyed a number of variations of this combo in all sorts of places around the world. But my go-to recipe is the one Mama still makes, passed on to her by my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hawkins. 
Macaroni and cheese makes just about every comfort food list I’ve ever seen. When we lived overseas, finding a boxed version of any old generic brand was a treat — when good cheese is hard to come by, you adapt.  In the years following, Easy-Mac became a staple on Daughter’s limited menu. But of course, back before Kraft found a way to put it in a box and make it decent, it had to be homemade. Creamy in the middle, chewy and crusty on the edges — that’s mac and cheese. 
This is not the end of the conversation — “Southern Living” is a worthy consultant on the topic, but not the ultimate decision-maker. There is much more to come, and you need to be a part of it. Send me an email with your favorite comfort food, and I’ll put together a favorites list from Eats One Ate readers in a future column. In the meantime, eat and be comforted. 
if that is possible. Another table diced the same squash and tossed it with pumpkin oil. The third went a slightly different direction — sweet potato with onion and bacon. That’s all I wrote down, so I cannot readily reproduce the recipe, but it’s definitely a combination I will experiment with someday. 
It may have been more green that escaped my pen (and thus my memory) — a tossed salad of some sort was represented, I think. Another did not, however, because it focused on two colorful foods that I still struggle with liking: red beets and goat cheese. In our house as a boy, beets were not on the list of “eat this or no dessert.” Really, I don’t remember ever seeing them on the table. I could have blocked the memory, but probably not. So I am still working on acquiring a taste for them — ditto the goat cheese, but I’m trying. 
Another dish that did make my list was a combination of apples and kohlrabi, flavored with sage and lemon verbena. This may have been my first experience with kohlrabi, and it was a good beginning. Since then the purple bulb and its greens have appeared in my farm bag a time or two, and I’ve prepared it several different ways. It is a bit of a wild-looking vegetable, but quite versatile. 
On the starchy side, I got to try something else for the very first time: buckwheat polenta. A quick search on the world-wide interweb and I learned that in Northern Italy, buckwheat was one of the original grains used to make polenta before corn arrived from the New World. Truth be told, it just looked like a skillet full of mush, but it was high on my favorites list that night - warm and comforting and full of flavor.
The last component to complete a true meat ‘n three (or nine) is a bread of some variety.  Naturally, with all those Lodge cast iron skillets sitting about, cornbread was the obvious choice for this evening. Whether used as a pushing utensil, a sopping vehicle, or just an extra mouthful of crumbly goodness, a hunk of cornbread is an excellent companion to plate lunch fare. 
If you’re doing the math, you may have realized I have not accounted for nine distinct veggie dishes, though way more than nine veggies were represented in all. It is possible that in my fervor to try a bit of everything, one dish may have escaped my notes. Please forgive me. I don’t think anyone will go hungry with only eight sides. 

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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