To write about what you ate (or drank) ... is to dream the past alive. Taste it, swallow. Close your eyes. Roll your tongue around in your mouth.
— Mark Winegardner,
We Are What We Ate
When in grade school, Summer Krecke looked forward each day to the carefully prepared meal her mother packed in her Garfield lunch box: A heart-shaped peanut butter and jelly sandwich she formed with her hand-made cookie cutter, an orange, an apple and a Little Debbie Star Crunch. Even then, she knew at some level that it was not simply the food that delighted her, but the message it evoked. It was her mother's way of saying, "I am here and I love you."
For me, certain foods are links to the past, like the Star Crunch that instantly elicited pleasant memories and emotions for Krecke, Metro Times editorial intern. After a particularly discouraging day, I often console myself with a bowl of Froot Loops. Just pouring it in the bowl perks me up.
Of course, finding solace in food is not unique to me. I asked some of my Metro Times workmates what comfort foods awaken their childhood memories.
Our restaurant reviewer Jane Slaughter can instantly recommend the best diner for breakfast, tell you where to grab a cheap, satisfying bite, or advise you on what places to avoid. But when she longs for a soothing meal, she never eats out.
"Comfort food is for home when you're bummed and can barely make it out of the house," she says.
Some of her favorite comfort foods include spaghetti, chicken and dumplings, or gravy and rice -- meals her mother prepared when Slaughter was a girl. She makes these for herself when she wants to take the sting out of a bad day.
"A lot of it is the texture," she says, describing what constitutes comfort food. "It has to be soft and smooth so you don't have to chew."
When her own children need consoling, Slaughter says chocolate pudding is the perfect remedy.
"We make it in the winter from scratch," she says, "and eat it while it's warm."
When our editor Larry Gabriel was a boy, he recalls his father waking him out of bed to eat. Gabriel's father was a bass player and brought home leftovers for his eight children after late-night gigs.
"It was the first time I saw fancier foods, like deli meats," Gabriel says, reflecting for a moment. "Yeah, that was a good memory."
But gumbo is the dish that summons some of the fondest mealtime memories for Gabriel, whose family is from New Orleans.
"We had it about once a month and it was the one time the whole family sat down and ate together," he says.
Grilled cheese, fish sticks and fried chicken wings are Jim McCarter's favorite childhood dishes -- and still are.
"I remember fighting over who got the last fish stick," says the Metro Times publisher, who has three brothers and a sister. But he didn't know then that these simple and inexpensive meals were weekly staples because his parents could not afford much more at the time.
"We ate it because it was cheap," he says.
Though McCarter has shared his favorite, fatty American fare with his own four kids, the tradition didn't take. Their culinary tastes are more refined, like their mother's, he says. Vegetarian chili, tabouli, spinach pie and baked cod are some of their favorites.
If other kids are anything like McCarter's, perhaps the comfort foods of future generations will be a bit more healthy than grilled cheese and pudding. In the meantime, pass the Froot Loops!