Finding comfort in the kitchen

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Feature

I don’t know for an absolute fact that Southerners invented the term “comfort foods,” but I wouldn’t hesitate to bet on it. Even the list of common comfort foods on the politically-correct and often factually incorrect Wikipedia screams “South.”

There’s a clam chowder, burrito and corned beef and cabbage listed, but the majority of the list of 40-plus foods are southern staples: biscuits and gravy, mac and cheese, chicken and dumplings, cornbread, etc.

In truth, comfort foods are any food that evokes that warm, safe feeling of home and hearth. My comfort foods are tied to my mother’s recipe box – which, unfortunately, was primarily in her head and heart and not committed to paper.

A recent Facebook post by one of my Lexington, Tenn., cousins, Carly Dyer Smith, to her mother, Ramona, brought the whole comfort food topic back. Carly saw a recipe for Slow Cooker Pepper Steak and messaged her mom on Facebook: “Can you make this?”

Mom replied: “It’s already in the Crockpot.”

I joined in the thread by saying to Ramona, “We are our mothers’ daughters…”

For Aunt Kathy, Ramona’s mother, homemade potato soup was the ultimate comfort food. She made a big pot for every family gathering, as well as weekends to take “to the river,” meaning the houseboat they had docked on the Tennessee River near Parsons. I am not surprised that, like her mom, when daughter Carly was craving pepper steak, Ramona hopped to it.

My mother expressed her love in the kitchen. I did not do that for my sons. Our family dinners were often at restaurants or sitting around a Domino pizza box – the first to deliver right to our door. Holiday cooking was special, and I did a lot of that and enjoyed it. I also had a few special dishes that the boys really enjoyed, and they will, on occasion, still turn in a request for Cheeseburger pie, Thanksgiving dressing, homemade pimento cheese or fried scallops.

For my mother, both grandmothers and most of my aunts on both sides of the family, cooking was the best way to say, “Welcome!” and “We love you.”

I remember two incidents with my mother as if they were yesterday. One was when I brought my boyfriend, Neville, who later became my husband, home to meet the family. My mother got up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning to start cooking breakfast. When Neville – who was pretty accustomed to oatmeal, cereal or French toast in the mornings – came to the kitchen for breakfast, a smorgasbord of Frances Gardner masterpieces greeted him: homemade biscuits so light and fluffy they defied gravity; homemade strawberry and blackberry jam; milk gravy with sausage; cut-with-a-fork medallions of pork tenderloin; thick slabs of country bacon, fried crisp; homemade country sausage patties with just the right touch of heat; scrambled eggs with Velveeta cheese melted in; fried country ham with red-eye gravy and fresh fruit compote of strawberries, peaches and cantaloupe.

Neville proposed not too many weeks after that breakfast. I’ve always wondered if he secretly hoped the nut didn’t fall too far from the tree.

The second was when I was a senior at the University of Tennessee, working part-time at the News Sentinel and not getting home as much as I had been in previous years. I discovered on a Thursday that I had an open weekend and called Mom to say I was coming home.

I walked in the door around 5 p.m. on Friday to a kitchen that sent me straight to heaven. On the stove was spaghetti with meat sauce, made with a tomato sauce recipe I have never been able to recreate; rich beef stroganoff, my favorite; and my mother’s fried chicken, cooked in an electric skillet that somehow afforded it a crispy, delicate coating. Under the cake stand was an Italian Cream Cake and a chocolate pie from my Mamaw was cooling on the counter top.

“Mom!” I exclaimed, amazed. “How are the three of us ever going to eat this much food?”

She looked around sheepishly. “Food always gets eaten here,” she answered, which was true. “And I just didn’t know what you were missing the most.”

In that moment, I knew what she was missing the most: Me.

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