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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Comfort Food

Three quarters the way through the memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, the author Rhoda Janzen begins discussing the foods of her Mennonite upbringing -- Borscht and streudel to name a few.  It made me think about the foods that I grew up with and what they mean to me.  I grew up in a modest household where my parents pinched pennies to feed a large family of kids (five to start with a sixth late-in-life addition).  We knew that a pot of beans one day, meant chili the next.  Chicken on Sunday, meant chicken soup on Monday.  If the garden gave us acorn squash, we ate acorn squash. Grocery shopping day meant a special treat of lunch meat sandwiches on fresh deli bread.  I grew up knowing how to stretch a dollar and how to make big pots of food.  And those foods that came from that stretch are the comfort foods of my youth.

My mother is Polish which brought us pierogis, creamed cucumbers and stuffed cabbage.  My father is Mexican and Cuban and that came with tortillas, refried beans, and black beans and rice.  We lived in the country.  So that provided us with fresh garden vegetables and fried bluegill, catfish and bass. 

Tortillas were a staple in our household.  As the oldest daughter in the bunch, I remember being very involved in the household responsibilities with my mother.  I remember the feel of the soft floury tortilla dough in my hands as I gently but swiftly folded and tucked them into small pockets the size of my palm.  I remember taking turns at rolling the tortillas flat and cooking and flipping them on the cast iron skillet.  A pile of warm tortillas 8 inches high stacked beneath a clean dish towel was always at the ready.  I remember the warm aroma of refried beans when I came home from school. 

My father and brothers would fish in the local ponds and rivers and freeze the fillets as they caught them.  Once we had enough for dinner, we had a fish fry.  It felt like a special event.  Maybe the big fisherman were proud of their catch and for providing the family dinner?  Maybe it was just good eatin'.  No matter, fish fry day was a cause for celebration.

Gardening, on the other hand, brings back memories of dry clay and hard cracked ground, long sunny days, hauling buckets of water out to the garden, setting jar lids full of salt water out to catch the slugs.  Weeding. Lots of weeding. It was hot sweaty work.  No matter how hard we toiled, the burn pile would beat us out.  The burn pile out back grew the best largest yellow squash and zucchini.  No one planted them or tended to them.  They were just outgrowths of the burn trash.  I wonder if we gathered more from the burn pile then from the garden itself. 

My boyfriend has a beautiful piece of property that he so generously shares with us.  He has a pond and a river for fishing and enough space for me to garden to my heart's delight.  He plows me up a little garden big enough for two rows of this and two rows of that.  Last summer I froze green beans and peas, and made everything out of zucchini (much to the dismay of my sons), we had creamed cucumbers and I tried my hand at homemade tomato sauce (still in the freezer, the verdict is still out).  When I hold a red plump juicy tomato in my hand and breath in the fresh aroma, I can close my eyes and I'm back in my family's backyard garden.

To this day, I cook my comfort foods often.  I enjoy sharing that with my boyfriend and my two boys.  I set up traditions in my household with the hope that my kids will look back on their childhood fondly and warmly.  I don't roll my own tortillas anymore since you can easily buy quality tortillas at a good price.  But I do cook my own refried beans and occasionally black beans (my kids haven't acquired that taste yet).  I associate a great wedding with a wide spread of Polish foods and polka music. We have lunch meat and fresh deli bread on many grocery days.  And there is nothing like a good fish fry when I catch some good catfish on sale.  To my delight, my oldest son is making fishing his hobby.  I'm thinking, that one day soon, my son will be providing us with a good 'ol fish fry dinner and we'll have ourselves a party!