Confessions of a Foodie

I’m an eager eater. Growing up with Dad as a role model and six pace-setting siblings, I was neither fussy about taste nor shy about consumption. Mom once described her hungry children at the dinner table as piglets at a trough: squeals of excitement, jostling for position and dedication to the task.

My love of all things edible has never faltered. I remember restaurants where I ate outstanding food like others remember the names of their children. Though I’m a bit more refined than a brother who claims he’s never eaten a bad meal in a restaurant, I can find something I can enjoy on any menu. When traveling, I order the most unusual item offered: sautéed squid, braised armadillo, chitlins, a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich at Graceland.

I never find a dessert too sweet or gooey. When others complain, “My, I can’t eat this; it’s too rich,” I wonder how they’d react if I snatched the offending item from their plate and ate it.

Those who don’t share my passion for food puzzle me: An acquaintance once stopped the happy buzz of party guests around the appetizer table by announcing she didn’t live to eat. She ate to live. Overwhelmed by pity for her dire situation, I choked on a chocolate-covered strawberry.

I also have no patience with fussy eaters who spend more time picking their food apart than eating it. I keep my opinion to myself, though, after an experience I had as a rooky teacher.

Female staff members went out to dinner once a month to celebrate birthdays. The first time I attended, I sat next to Trudy, a stern-looking lady rumored to be uppity. When I ordered peanut-butter pie for desert, she sniffed, “Obviously, Janet has yet to outgrow her juvenile taste in food.”

Though embarrassed by her put-down, I stifled my response: “It’s also obvious, Snooty Trudy, that we could hang Christmas decorations on your enormous nose and stand you in the school’s lobby as our tree.”

So when a friend picked the pepperoni from a pizza and another ordered a hamburger without mustard, onion, lettuce or pickle and with the tomato chopped rather than sliced, I didn’t comment. And when a relative spent five minutes removing the raisins from a piece of raisin cake, I said not a word.

I love comfort food and believe in its power. Whenever misfortune struck a member of my family — not making the basketball team, a baby-sitting job from hell, acne — Mom assured us we’d feel better after we ate. And she was right.

Funeral food is comfort food at its best. After my paternal grandmother’s services, I sat with Dad on the steps to the upstairs bedroom in her pioneer-era home. We juggled plates of food and observed the crowd in silence.

I didn’t know how to console my Dad: I wasn’t sure how he felt about his mother, who left the raising of him to his grandmother and didn’t seem interested in his life when we visited. But he seemed melancholy and withdrawn. Not knowing what to say, I kept quiet, but slid close.

As we munched on potato-and-cheese casserole, pot roast, Jell-O salad, green beans with bits of bacon, homemade rolls, and apple pie, we began to talk. Dad told me he’d never met a piece of pie he didn’t like, and I made him laugh with a story about my college roommate who wouldn’t go to bed without eating a bowl of Raisin Bran and five jelly beans.

We felt better after we ate.

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One Person’s Comfort Food

Gourmet Peanut Butter Pie on a background

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.

Home-made white bread

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.