life nostalgia san francisco vegetables

About Comfort

20 July 2009

[At home, Sebastopol, July 2009.]

I was up at my parents’ house this weekend — my house, really, though I don’t live there anymore — and got to thinking about the idea of comfort: what it means, what it is, how we find it. I think I started thinking about this during dinner Saturday night because my mom made what I consider to be a classic comfort meal: mashed potatoes, little green beans cooked crisp in olive oil and salt, portabello mushrooms sauteed soft and pliable (the vegetarian version, perhaps, of steak). Mostly it was the mashed potatoes that did it; really, is there anything more comforting than mashed potatoes? We exclaimed over how we so rarely eat them and why not? Life is too short not to indulge in these little decadent bits every so often.

I do love mashed potatoes, you know. If it’s been a long day — and if the fog has settled in very determinedly — I’ll come and home wanting not much else than to make a fluffy pot of spuds. I’ll turn on the classical or classic rock station, depending on my mood, then peel, slice, and cook red and/or new potatoes until soft, drain them, and lace them liberally with butter (hey! This is supposed to be comfort food, after all!) and milk (lighter version involves olive oil and soy milk and yes, it does actually taste pretty darn good). I salt them well and eat them either with a chickpea-spinach stirfry or a slab of tofu and some sort of vegetable. But what I’m really after is those melting, salty, wholly satisfying potatoes.

Comfort comes in all forms — it can come with the ease of talking to an old, beloved friend unexpectedly, and though you haven’t spoke in ages it’s like no time has passed. It can come in one of your best girlfriend’s mac-and-cheese or the lasagna with which she sends you home after a dinner party. It can come in the swipe of a sweet black lab’s tongue or the knowledge that your best friend will always answer the phone when you call (and if he’s sleeping, his wife will pick up instead and that’s its own lovely pleasure). It can be the spaghetti you cook in lots of good, Clover butter from the county in which you grew up, sprinkled liberally with pepper and a bit more salt and as much parmesan as you can stand; healthful it’s not, but it doesn’t matter because it tastes so darn good. It can come via cupcakes your mom bakes you (and the avocados she always has on hand when you come to visit) or the way you’ll always have a gin and tonic with lemon when you visit the house in the woods, Tomales Bay shining bare and still out the tall windows, predictable and there and home.

In short, the search for comfort is one of familiarity and memory wound into a shimmering coil of favorite meals and wistful longing. Its seeking-out is something that is a constant — patient and watchful, that solid undercurrent of desire.

Tonight the fog is back and I had a long day so I made something for dinner that used to soothe my sore muscles after a long run four years ago when I was training for the Marine Corps Marathon: a portabello mushroom salad, piled high with all sorts of vegetables and avocado, and a baked potato. For a chilly Monday in San Francisco — along with a beer — it was just the thing. I was indeed comforted a bit, and felt better able to face the week ahead. I pulled on my wool socks, happily thought about my nightly cup of tea, and tucked in.

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[Saturday night dinner, July 2009.]

So along those lines, a few things that regularly bring me comfort (a.k.a. things I like a lot):

– A Friday night with no plans when I can meander home after work, maybe with a stop at the library to stock up on new reads and old favorites. Or if I’m feeling particularly flush, maybe I’ll get Out the Door vegetarian spring rolls and a grapefruit soda to take home and savor with a movie on netflix.

– Friday nights in general when I know I can sleep in until at least the very decadent hour of 9 a.m. the next morning when I’ll then wake to stretch luxuriously and just lie in bed for a few minutes anticipating my first cup of coffee and the farmers’ market visit.

– The smell of pancakes on Sunday mornings at my parents’ house when my dad has gotten up before the rest of us to cook breakfast. Or when I come sleepily into the kitchen and my mom has made me coffee and asks if I’d like French toast (with a little orange juice in the mix to make it perfectly tart-sweet).

– Spending the weekend with a kindred spirit, complete with coffee and dogs and talking about books.

– Beethoven’s 9th, that quiet beginning and the bits of piano that sing out and touch your heart they are so beautiful.

– Scrambled eggs with feta and tomato.

– The way a liter of water tastes after running 6 miles along the backroads in the sun; that sweet anticipation.

Amelie

– A cat curled up close in the bend of my knees as I go to sleep (and knowing s/he’ll wake me in the middle of the night to go out. You know how cats are.).

– The way an old friend writes me and always, always addresses the emails to “NS.”

– Going lap swimming with my dad in the pool downtown where I took my first swim lessons 25 years ago.

– The way the air smells in Pt. Reyes, like sun and salt and sea.

– … and how it smells in West County, too, of earth and damp grass and the cows come in to be milked.

– When my brother calls me just to say hi.

– The start to “Dancing in the Dark” and how when it comes on the radio it makes me think of summer and hot afternoons at the beach and how I’d maybe like to have a beer.

– Grilled cheese on whole wheat bread with the sharpest of sharp cheddars.

– The first bite of a crisp, perfect apple.

– Clementines in December.

– The ‘inappropriate pour’ with a certain friend at a certain dive in North Beach to which she introduced me when I first moved to San Francisco.

– My mom’s good chard-potato lasagna.

– One-half of a cold cucumber dipped in salt, reminding me of Greece and the northern mountains.

… and lots more.

What means comfort to you?

  • Jill 30 July 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Nicole! You are amazing!! A book is a great idea.

  • denise (chez danisse) 22 July 2009 at 11:20 am

    What means comfort to me? Getting lost in my favorite movie. When life begins to seem a little overwhelming, I adore putting on my pajamas, crawling under the covers, and watching Enchanted April.

  • Elaine 22 July 2009 at 11:08 am

    Great posting. Made me miss home in all the best possible way. This is a great blog that I read all the time. Thanks for writing.

  • Sprouted Kitchen/Sara 22 July 2009 at 9:53 am

    can you please write a book? i will be your first reader. my problem, is that I have all of these emotional thoughts, but I can’t come close to putting them on paper as well as you. You are so talented. Love you list too! I’m adding: when someone washes my car for me – good grainy bread with goat cheese – long conversations on a porch/balcony with a glass of wine – being loved – soft sheets – surprises ;)

  • helen 21 July 2009 at 11:03 pm

    brilliant! mouth watering! loving! photos to salivate over! you are a writer that makes human connections! keep it up! You touch one’s heart.

  • Tim 21 July 2009 at 8:49 am

    Hi Nicole- it’s your old neighbor, Tim, from across the hall (we’re over in Berkeley, now). Barb and I read your blog pretty regularly and try out some of your recipes. We’re both veggie, too.

    Your ‘comfort’ theme and the mention of Amélie makes me think of another film Jeunet made before Amélie and Delicatessen, titled Foutaises– Things I Like, Things I Hate. It’s a fantastic little love story, just like Amélie, and it’s a perfect compliment to your list of comforts. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDnVcLdu1C8

  • sonrie 21 July 2009 at 5:53 am

    I just love your writing! Your list of comforts made me hungry. Some things I would like to add are:

    -freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, still warm
    -curling up with a drink and a book
    -chicken tikka masala from my favorite Indian restaurant
    -smelling a ripe tomato from my garden
    -leftovers the next day that taste better that the first time