Comfort foodThe food you eat when you are sad, sick, lonely, in short, in need of comfort. It may be food your mother made when you were a kid. It may be some food you have come upon as an adult that you eat to feel better: cereal, toast and butter, mac’n’cheese, pasta. For me it can be oatmeal, poached eggs on toast, toasted cheese and tomato soup. That last most clearly demonstrates the distance I have come as an eater since growing up in my Central New York, working class family.
What is to change about toasted cheese and tomato soup? The name for one thing. It is most often called grilled cheese now, implying the sandwhich is made on a grill. Toasted cheese is actually another dish in which cheese is put under the broiler and toasted. My mother made toasted cheese sandwiches with American cheese on white bread, which may have been home made when Iwas a kid. And she made Campbell’s tomato soup with milk. The sandwich was cooked in butter. The basic ingredients.
Later, in the pressure of the food industry in America she switched to Roman meal whole grain bread. I can’t remember if I protested. If I did it wasn’t as vociferously as my children complained about whole grain breads. Sometime the cheese was Velveeta. Sometimes chedder.
We never cooked with margarine, a holdover from my mother’s Depression experiences. I switched to making the soup with water as a teen ager worried about my weight. I my twenties, with small kids of my own, the combination began to evolve from its middle class beginnings into a lunch or snack of a much different character.
With very little money to live on, I made a lot of my own bread. For awhile, when we got surplus food, we went back to Velveeta type cheese. Once we got on our feet, we could buy the real stuff: Munster, Swiss, Aged Chedder, Provolone. And those are just the sandwich cheeses. I continued to make and buy whole grain bread in a brazen disregard for my children’s preferences and in the firm belief that it was better not to eat any bread than to eat the Styrofoam stuff that came from the store. I still cooked in butter. I mean olio is some kind of goo that is derived from non-food material, right? So the sandwich changed, but not so much as the soup.
I still use Campbell’s tomato, still don’t use milk. But over the years I have added various things: garlic, a bit of olive oil, a dab of butter, dill. Mostly dill, because it tastes so good with the tomatoes. And there is always basil, another real tomato compliment. Basil, fresh from the garden, spicy-sweet, filling the kitchen with its sharp scent. Basil, dried. Basil and garlic with perhaps a bit of parmesan. The soup grows richer, “mouthier’ acquiring what flavorists call umame: Umami, popularly referred to as savoriness, has been proposed as one of the basic tastes sensed by specialized receptor cells present on the human and animal tongue. Umami (旨味?) is a loanword from Japanese meaning roughly "tasty", although "brothy", "meaty", or "savory" have been proposed as alternative translations. In as much as it describes the flavor common to savory products such as meat, cheese, and mushrooms, umami is similar to Brillat-Savarin's concept of osmazome, an early attempt to describe the main flavoring component of meat as extracted in the process of making stock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umami).
Thus what started out as simple comfort food has become a marker of education. My palate has changed and developed as I have eaten around the world and among friends with more food sophistication than I have. My vocabulary has changed; I know words like umami, that my parents would have though pretensious. My class has changed. I am not a blue collar person now, though I began there. Toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, then and now, mark my progress through life.