Thursday, December 29 2022 10:16

Cooking Up Comfort

Written by Alyssa Thayer

A tribute to foods that nourish us from the inside out

White bean and kale soup. Photo by Seneca Sahara Brand/Kimberton Whole Foods Cookbook

Whenever I see comfort food on a menu, it’s often accompanied by some version of mac ‘n’ cheese or chicken pot pie. While these are undeniably delicious, they’re not necessarily my comfort foods. For me, no matter the time of day, season or meal, my go-to is fried egg and rice. For my husband, it’s perfectly crisp sourdough grilled cheese. As a rule, comfort foods tend to be unpretentious, simple to make and deeply satisfying.

The interesting thing about the category of “comfort food” is it isn’t one size fits all. It’s uniquely suited to each individual. It’s the foods we turn to when we’re in need of respite, in search of celebration, or feeling a little under the weather. They are a full sensory experience of smells and flavors that evoke “home” and the people who’ve cared for us along the way.

Alyssa and Baya eating popcorn out of recycled yogurt containers

I recently spoke to a fellow foodie friend on her 42nd birthday and asked her how she was celebrating. She laughed and said, “I’ve asked my mom to make me turkey meatballs. I just love them — she used to make them for me when I was little.”

For many of us, food memories transcend time and space. Just one whiff of cinnamon and apples and I’m standing on a chair stirring applesauce in my childhood home. One bit of sweet potato casserole and I’m sitting on a vinyl banquet watching the 49ers with my dad. The power of these memories comes from their associations. They evolve way beyond just delightful dishes to become living tributes to all that we hold dear.

Matzo ball soup

While everyone’s discrete web of lineage and memories ultimately defines their comfort foods, there seem to be a few that are universally accepted. Most cultures have some version of grandma’s chicken soup. No matter whether it came from a Nonna, an Abuela or an Oma, whether it was veggie broth, bone broth or anything in between, the sentiment remains the same. My grandma’s signature was a salty chicken broth poured over fluffy little homemade matzo balls. The combination was divine, like a steaming hot bowl of pure love.

With each chapter of our lives comes a changing set of circumstances: new people, new jobs and new communities. When things feel foreign and unfamiliar, these recipes become wells of comfort we can dip into at any time.

Whenever I got a cold as a child, my mom would bring me umami-filled miso soup. And to this day, if I start to feel a sore throat coming on, I check the fridge to ensure I have a good supply of red miso paste. During the chillier months, I make this soup for my husband and add rice noodles for my kids, which they slurp up like noisy little piglets. In this way, the tradition and recipe live on. And perhaps one day when my boys are older, they, too, might comfort someone they love with their own rendition of the dish.

Alyssa with grandfather Eric Simon skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland

Often, my food memories are sparked by a time of year. A crisp autumn day with a hint of wood fire in the air tells me it’s time to put tamale pie on my menu. And during dark winter months, I find solace in buying a big bright box of clementines, reminding me of days spent on the ski mountain with my grandfather. We would pack our lunch of fresh bread and cheese into his “rucksack” and punctuate each meal with segments of juicy sweet clementines and hunks of dark chocolate.

One of my favorite parts about writing this column over the last few years has been hearing about family traditions and tastes of home, from my very first article in County Lines about Mariella Frazier of Heritage Flour Baking Company, who began her business by recreating the Maltese pastries she so fondly remembered from her youth, to my recent article with Denise Schatz of Aunt Mamie’s Italian Specialties, who spoke of her grandmother’s special “Sunday Sauce,” which was always simmering on the stove when she visited. Both these women, as well as countless others, were inspired by the power of food to heal us, bring us together and ground us in our heritage.

As we turn the page into a fresh New Year, let’s find comfort in the foods that nourish our souls and the openness and pride to share them with others. We don’t all have to love the same foods, but beautiful things happen when we get around the table!

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