comfort food

I had Kraft dinner for supper. Well, actually, it wasn’t Kraft dinner. It was Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar.

I was diagnosed with Celiac disease three years ago. Three years without Kraft dinner. Not that I ever ate it that often but it was a great favorite when I was a kid. As an adult, I probably ate it once every couple of months but once I couldn’t have it, I longed for it. I dreamt about it. In the grocery store, I stood in the pasta section and stared at it.

Then I discovered Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar at the local Co-op store. That was a surprise but an even bigger surprise was that it was reasonably priced. Most companies sock it to celiacs. You want gluten free food, you are going to pay for it. Four cookies for five dollars—or more. When I discovered the Pasta & Cheddar, I bought all three packages. Just having them in the cupboard helped stop my craving. It’s taken me three months to eat all three packages. I’ll have to stock up again.

Comfort foods come from childhood. They usually come from mom. My mother was a great cook and baker. When my mother and father got married, he said he was going to have a lemon pie every day. I know my mother didn’t make lemon pies every day but she made them often. Great lemon pies with flaky crusts, with deep, tart lemon filling, with egg whites whipped into high, twirly mounds and finished off in the over so there was just a light brown on the tips. When you cut down with your fork, you could feel the layers: the crumbling egg white, the jelly like lemon, the crispy crust breaking apart. Putting each piece in your mouth was erotic. The three textures, the three tastes, separate and together. It tasted so good that after that first bite, I used to shut my eyes and sigh.

Stew with dumplings on a cold winter day. Coming home from school, my boots crunching through the snow, I could smell the stew from the edge of the yard. I’ve tried to duplicate my mother’s stew but have never succeeded. She made it in a large blue enamel roasting pan and cooked it for half a day. Chuck roast for flavour, peeled potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaf, maybe a pinch of nutmeg and, I suspect, some Demerara sugar under the roast. She would never say. Lots of gravy because after the table was set, she put in the dumplings, dumplings that fluffed up so they were light, cut easily at the touch of a fork, dumplings bathed in gravy, speared with a piece of meat. Imagine a meal like that followed by lemon pie.

My father made the pickerel fillets. Great golden mounds of pickerel fillets from fish he’d caught that morning. In season he fried the roe to go with them. Roe that was crispy and mild. Sometimes, if the pickerel were big enough, he’d take out the cheeks, dip them in batter and deep fry them. The fillets he dipped in a mixture of milk, egg and tomato ketchup, dredged them in flour, then dipped them again and dipped them in fine bread crumbs. No matter how bad my day had been by the end of a meal like this and the world had righted itself.

Comfort food. Food made with love, shared with love, containing memories of childhood, of family meals, of going to sleep with a full stomach and a smile.

Pollution

“I’ve got a headache,” my daughter said, except she was three so it was heag-ache. “I fixed.” She held up an empty aspirin bottle.
 I was busy writing and said, “That’s good.” She was always playing at something, pretending one thing or another.  It wasn’t until after another four paragraphs that the empty pill bottle popped into my head again.
 “Did you give Nan an empty pill bottle to play with,” I shouted down the stairs to my wife.
 “No,” she said. “Why?”
 We pulled on our daughter’s winter clothes, bundled  her onto a sleigh and hauled her to the nearby hospital. There was a doctor and nurse but they needed my wife’s help in holding or daughter down while they pumped her stomach. Up came aspirin, two colors of crayon and a button. She’d been sampling whatever was handy. While our daughter screamed and flailed, I hid outside the operating room completely unable to assist. On the way home, I couldn’t stop shaking.
 “She’ll be fine,” wife said. “They got it all out. They’re just keeping her in overnight for observation.
 I couldn’t sleep that night. Instead, I paced the floor, round and round, too agitated to sit down never mind lie down.
 Over the years we ended up at emergency any number of times. With two kids that’s not surprising, especially when you’ve got a daughter who’s a jock. She slipped and dislocated a collar bone at school, broke an ankle at soccer, fell on her head during gymnastics–I’d sit petrified while my wife took charge, directing events, obtaining information.
 When our daughter got pneumonia we drove her to a hospital in Kansas and they whipped her into a nightgown and began a regime of a needle of antibiotics every four hours, I drove back and forth to the hospital every day frantic with anxiety.
 I was, I told myself, an absolute coward, unable to deal with crises. Ineffectual. Helpless.
Then one day, I was hiking with a friend. We’d stopped before crossing a small stream. Some branches had formed a barrier and, instead of pristine water, pollution was piled up against it.
 “That’s coming from somewhere upstream. Let’s see if we can find it,” he said.
 After two kilometres we came across an old sewage pipe. We’d have missed it because of the brambles but the water above it was clear and we backtracked. My friend knows people in the environmental movement. He told them about the pipe and they reported it. Awhile later he told me the owner hadn’t even known about the pipe. Someone else had put it in.
 I’d just made another trip to emergency and the pipe and the hospital somehow came together. The idea that everything had to come from somewhere. It was a startling idea. “When I was ten,” I said to my friend, “I came home one day for lunch and my mother wasn’t there.”
 “Your mother’s been taken to the hospital,” our next door neighbor said and I nearly collapsed.
 It turned out that she was pregnant in her fallopian tube and had to have an emergency operation. A number of days went by before I rode my bicycle to the hospital. I was in tears at the door and chewing on my fist by the time I got to her room. To my relief she was sitting up in bed looking quite healthy.
 Maybe that’s what brought it back strong enough to wake me up from a sound sleep. I sat staring into the darkness, listening to my father say when I was little, not once, or even twice, but over and over, “People go to  hospital to die.” He must have been twenty-three or four then because I was around four or five. That’s what happened to his mother when he was twelve. They took her to a hospital in Winnipeg and she died. An old event, forgotten and obscured, like that sewage pipe covered in brambles and fern.