After eating dinner in a Reno restaurant with a group of female colleagues, I ordered peanut butter cheesecake for dessert. A fellow diner laughed through her thick lipstick and announced to everyone within range, “I guess Janet’s taste buds didn’t make it out of junior high.”
Because my Uncle Gus advised me to never argue with a jackass, I smiled sweetly, but I thought, “Who made you the judge of desserts, Ms Snooty-Tooty? Why don’t you nibble the piece of bitter Belgium chocolate you ordered, smear lipstick on your glass of red wine, and let the rest of us enjoy ourselves?”
Then I ate my cheesecake.
I consider peanut butter in all its guises a comfort food because I ate as much of it as I could during my childhood: straight from the jar, mixed with honey or jelly on bread, and in the best-textured cookies ever created.
But products of my mother’s kitchen dominate the list of foods that make me feel good: pot roast with vegetables and gravy, baked winter squash with lots of butter, macaroni made with hamburger and tomatoes, beans cooked all day with bits of ham, frosted cinnamon rolls, raisin cake with caramel frosting, pies with unfashionably thick crusts.
Much as I enjoyed these favored foods, my young self also chased food fads, yearned for store-bought products, and wished Mom believed in snacks and fancy appetizers.
When I could get away with it, I swigged copious amounts of Kool-Aid and a sugary breakfast drink called Tang, popular because it voyaged into space with the astronauts. I preferred Campbell’s soups to Mom’s homemade versions and, after a lifetime of slicing homemade bread, considered Wonder Bread a special treat.
I liked to visit friends who had sugary or salty snacks readily available; Mom usually told me to go eat an apple. I remember a glorious day when a friend’s mother, trying out appetizers for a party, fed her daughter and me a mixture of deviled ham, mayonnaise, and chopped sweet pickles on saltine crackers then followed that delicacy with pigs in a blanket, which we daintily dipped in mustard.
That evening, when I suggested to Mom that she start serving appetizers before dinner, she raised an eyebrow and spoke not a word.
Fortunately, I soon outgrew my foolish notion that processed food was better than homemade — except for cereal. I’d still choose Cheerios or Cornflakes over a bowl of oatmeal — a breakfast standard Blaine called glue and Barbara decorated with dead flies so she wouldn’t have to eat it.
I suppose, like most people, my comfort foods have always been the foods I ate surrounded by my family when my appetite was inexperienced and unconstrained, my happiness easily won, and my future unlimited.