“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the
crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran
through me and I stopped, intent upon the
extraordinary thing that was happening to me. …
How could I seize and apprehend it?”
—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Comfort food is a quantum equation sensitively dependent on time, place, persons, states of mind and heart. One bite of the right thing, at the right time can be the difference between feeling at one with the universe or feeling like a lost and lonely soul. A kind of culinary gravity grabs us. (Or doesn’t.) The combinations of sights, aromas, and tastes are connections to the land of the living and loved, they speak to our most fundamental existential needs. Synapses, sense organs, neurotransmitters, object, narrative network, contact. BANG! And, there we are. It’s all about love given and received.
In the phrase, “comfort food,” the key word is comfort. The comfort arises not from the food itself, but from the connection between the preparer of the food and the recipient. A kind of culinary semiotics. A giant sign hangs over our heads when the stars align; “You are here and so am I, and that fucking matters.” Comfort food made and gratefully received. Ultimately, comfort food is comestible love, however fleeting. Sometimes, in the trajectory of family history, those moments may be all we get for some time.
The chaos of my childhood, included a full array of human happiness and misery, connection and disconnection. Mom used to lock herself in the bathroom, threaten suicide. Shriek, “I have a knife.” Dad beat on the door, begging on his knees, “Please, please let me in.” And that’s how things were. Until the pendulum would swing back the other way. At which point they’d be so in love, there was no room for anyone else, even me.
Full disclosure: When I was nine or so, lonely and desperate for attention, I’d throw myself out of bed, day after day, letting my body plunge from the tall, New England bed loose and heavy. I’d hit the floor hard then lay there, motionless, waiting, listening.
And then, there were the eggs. This single, simple dish had the power to erase a thousand terrible things. She made them for me! There was the crunch of the toast, the buttery aroma, the soft spill of yellow yolk across the white of egg and brown toast. There was music in the kitchen. Opera on the local classical station. Mom singing along. Her contralto voice diving low then soaring. A libretto of eggs.
She made them soft cooked, poached or fried, sunny side up with olive oil and butter. A dash of Italian herbs or maybe just a dusting of thyme. There was thoroughly buttered, hand-shredded toast in served in a bowl. Just a pinch of salt. The toast went into the bowl first. Then came the egg. Soft and cascading over the surfaces and fissures in the toast. She’d bring them to the table in a heavy Italian bowl. And, just like that, I rejoined the cosmos.
Now, she is old. She has trouble walking or even standing to cook. She doesn’t care for eggs. So these days, I make them myself. Each time, an act of self love. Now, they are just about as good. Maybe even better, now that the desperation has gone.