In food, as in so many things, our highly personalized response to the coronavirus pandemic has striking parallels to, and surprising departures from, the other great trauma of most current lifetimes: the 9/11 attacks. In that case, our leaders told us to go out to eat and spend money. In this case, they told us to stay home and save lives.
In both cases, what we’ve eaten has been pretty much the same.
I was blessed, a small joy within a large tragedy, to be food editor of the Houston Chronicle when Sept. 11 became its own day that will live in infamy. And after penning (more like weeping through) a column about dining at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center years earlier, I settled in for months of writing about comfort foods.
You might argue that I’m always writing about comfort foods, since I do find our culinary adventure – cooking, eating and enjoying wine – an immense comfort anytime. But as my opening thought pointed out, this time is also different. Because the danger is different.
As we speak today, most restaurants in most cities and towns in America are shut down, though many have been allowed to keep their lights on by offering takeout and delivery. After 9/11 the restaurants were ready and perfectly able to serve us safely, yet the hardest part was convincing Americans to leave their homes. It was, looking back, relatively hard to picture a terrorist finding us individually in some restaurant and killing us, whereas that’s precisely what the coronavirus loves to do best.
For all those with favorite restaurants they are trying to support, most of us staying home and saving lives are cooking more than we ever have, possibly cooking differently than we ever have (with more obsession with sanitation and food safety, which are fine things). And we are tracking down old recipes from long-departed relatives to give us the flavors we treasure in our memories. When we do this cooking, what we’re cooking is comfort food.
In the first couple weeks of our American awareness of COVID-19, as it ceased being some other country’s problem, many people emptied the stores before sane minds set purchase limits. Those limits should have been there all along, as hoarding is not only stupid but dangerous to others. Nationally, some grocers did better jobs than others. Yet thinking about it now, nothing can be more traditional than doing without, than working to fix dinner not with what you want but what you have.
Empty grocery shelves have sometimes in our history been the rule, not the exception. And most of us have had ancestors and other relatives who couldn’t afford what was on those shelves, no matter how full they were.
Comfort foods that are expensive or difficult to make are, by definition, silly contradictions. Our grandparents and great-grandparents, fresh off some boat or across some border, did without a lot. Yet besides educating their children to be more successful Americans than they would ever be – to become, in other words, us – they always did their best to feed everyone entrusted to them.
Relying on intuitive recipes from one or more old countries, they slaved over their stoves to produce the slowest-simmered sauce that could elevate the most quickly assembled enchilada – or turned less-than-best meats into the world’s best sausage. And that only after braising the less-tough parts in a splash of liquid hour after hour, until our parents could chew them. Those parts, they assured themselves and us, have the best and most flavor anyway.
Making comfort food at home is our way of re-connecting – or maybe connecting for the first time. No, this isn’t the least bit voluntary. Yes, we can all think of (to borrow a lovely title from a Vietnam War novel) “better times than these.” Yet we all know we enjoy the better times we’ve had and will have again because of tough, high-spirited, self-sacrificing believers who did their best to feed us through far worse times.
NAVY BEAN & SMOKED SAUSAGE SOUP
If we could gather all our ancestors around us just one time and hand them ballots, they’d surely vote soups and stews the World’s Best Comfort Foods. And since soups are stretched even farther than stews, they probably would triumph in any competition over stews. While meat plays a role in most, it is almost never the star.
1 pound dried navy beans
1 pound smoked sausage, cut bite-sized
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 tablespoons minced garlic
8 cups chicken broth
1 cup Mom’s brand Spaghetti Sauce
2 tablespoons dried parsley flakes
Salt and black pepper
Soak the beans according to package directions. When ready to prepare the soup, brown the sausage in the olive oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven, and remove it from the pot. Caramelized the onion, celery and carrot in the remaining oil, then stir in the garlic for 1 minute. Return the sausage and add chicken broth, spaghetti sauce and parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until beans are tender, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Serve hot in bowls. Serves 6-8.