Article and Photos by Pam Vukelic
What is your comfort food? What did you want your mom to make for you when you came home from college for a weekend?
These are great questions to use as conversation starters! Since I’ve been away from home this past month, I’ve had the opportunity to query lots of folks from many different states. There are a few things comfort foods have in common.
Inexpensive foods are the norm—think dough and creamed anything on toast. Many comfort foods are regional. Some are ethnic. Easy preparation is typical.
Hands down, the most popular dish is mac and cheese. This is not regional. I went to my friend, Katie, a wonderful cook who wouldn’t resort to the box version, for her recipe. She said mac and cheese brings back memories of her mama and her grandma. She shared her recipe with us and also suggested the leftovers—not that there are likely to be any—make a great breakfast when warmed up and topped with salsa.
Regional foods include some interesting items—like brown bread in a can—something totally new to me. Friends from Maine and Missouri both mentioned it. In Maine, a typical Saturday evening supper consists of B & M Brown Bread, sliced, heated, then topped with hotdogs and beans. Piccalilli, a vegetable relish, is the standard condiment. Another regional item is Frito pie. Texans eat it with cornbread.
Lots of people eat cornbread, including daughter-in-law Mollie from Kentucky, whose dad made it for them. The leftovers were crumbled up and eaten with milk for breakfast, like cereal. An Illinois friend told about measuring flour for cornbread from her grandma’s bin using a tea cup, handle missing, of course. Because the cup was a bit large, you had to be sure your thumb was inserted into the cup to get the proper measurement.
Our kids mentioned tater tot hotdish, I think because their Grandma Irene often served it when we were at her house for supper. Of all the people I interviewed for this article no one outside of North Dakota had heard of tater tot hotdish.
Midwesterners are the people most likely to name ethnic dishes. It will not surprise you that knoephla soup, fleischkuechle, and cheese buttons came up. Schnitta might be a bit more of a surprise; lefse would not. Nor would ravioli in marinara sauce if you’re an Italian from Boston or tamales if you’re a Mexican from Texas. Many of these items are family projects and consequently evoke fond memories.
My friend Frances says the best tamales are made with meat from pigs’ heads. Prior to all the TSA regulations we now have, she boarded a plane in California with three pigs’ heads in a garbage bag—no problem—to take home to her mom.
Potato dishes are also popular. My cousin Jeanne talked about potato soup with Polish potato dumplings our Aunt Proxie made. Mashed potatoes and potato cakes came up; some people said “anything potato.” Chicken and dumplings are popular, too, as is chicken and rice, according to son-in-law Shaun.
Friend Karen says her kids ask for “Good Goop,” which is essentially lasagna in a bowl, using small pasta instead. You know how popular “bowls” are these days. Some restaurants specialize in them. I think Karen and her kids were ahead of their time!
It was uncommon for someone to mention dessert, but there was an occasional comment about apple pie, red velvet cake, and ice cream. My husband, Jim, would say his go-to comfort food is baked rice, a dish his mother continued to make for him decades after we were married.
I wonder what our grandchildren will say when they are able to respond to the question, “What is your comfort food?” We are likely to have an impact on that!
Katie’s Mac and Cheese
2 cups elbow macaroni, cooked to al dente stage
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
salt & pepper to taste
1/8 to ¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 ½ cup milk
1-8 ounce block sharp cheddar, shredded
1/3 cup dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon melted butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large pan, melt butter then stir in flour to make roux. Add seasonings. When bubbly, add milk, stir until thickened then add cheese. Place macaroni into pot and stir well to coat with sauce. Pour into lightly greased baking dish, top with buttered crumbs, and bake about 45 minutes, until heated through.
Click here for more comfort food recipes from Pam and her friends.
Pam Vukelic is an online FACS (Family and Consumer Science) instructor for the Missouri River Educational Cooperative. For Pam, any kind of soup is comfort food, especially if it is a creamy type.