Comfort foods


I’ve been telling people that I’ve been under the weather for the last week or so, but I realize that the more accurate cliché is that “I’ve been off my feed.” The animal connotations of this phrase are apparent, but the phrase also represents accurately what’s happened to my eating during this period. The regular dinner menu seems repulsive which is a really unfortunate turn at a time when I’ve been trying, with some success, to reverse a period of unaccountable weight loss. Even the dietary supplement I stocked up on for the fattening isn’t the first thing I want to reach for in the fridge.

So, what am I drawn to? Item #1 is soft-boiled eggs, the kind the British eat by beheading them in charming little egg cups. We don’t own any of those, so I just crack them open and scrape the contents into a custard cup. I’m not sure how this dish came to be associated in my mind with illness, health and healing. In my childhood home, soft-boiled eggs were standard breakfast fare, so there was a gap of many decades of living away from “home” before these golden treats, salted of course, acquired medicinal properties. In this latest round of illness-fueled food aversions, I ate soft-boiled eggs 3 or 4 nights in a row.

There’s a long-standing tradition in our house that one meal each year includes soft-boiled eggs that aren’t related to illness. After Yom Kippur, a Jewish day of fasting, they are part of our ritual of breaking the fast. Many Jews choose a different path for that meal – platters of bagels, lox, cream cheese and all the fixings. That strikes me as a harsh return to normalcy. Instead I like to picture my empty vessel of a stomach needing relining before returning to the rough stuff of the regular diet. I can see the connection between those post-fast eggs and the ones I’m drawn to when I’m ill. They’re both gentle attempts to reset a system that the body has experienced as malfunctioning, regardless of cause.

The great food writer MFK Fischer has assigned the title “slip and go easies” to a whole class of foods, which includes custards, flans and many puddings. If you’re old enough to remember Junket, that’s a definite SAGE (Look at that! I hadn’t anticipated such a neat acronym). If any item in this category appears on a restaurant menu, it is certain to be part of my wife’s order. I would nominate soft-boiled eggs for honorary SAGE status and would point out that many of the other members of the group are also egg-based, a fact I could flog for symbolic significance – eggs and wholeness, eggs and generativity – but let me just close this section by thanking those strangely shaped little guys for seeing me through a bad patch.

The eggs have a constant partner on my list of foods that my afflicted stomach can tolerate: Cream of Wheat. For some readers this name will be bring you to the edge of a generational abyss. I actually had to check Amazon to see if the product still exists. It’s been decades since I had to replace the vintage box in our pantry, which is probably a testimonial to my general state of good health across the years. In any case, when I Googled it, there it was, still sporting the same slightly politically incorrect Black chef, toque and all, inviting you to take from his hands a steaming bowl of the stuff.

And just what is the “stuff?” According to the box it is wheat farina with defatted wheat germ. (I must confess my ignorance of the fact that wheat germ was fatted in the first place.) The label also makes claims to the presence of calcium and iron, but I’m convinced that COW (Wow. Another triumph!) has virtually no nutritional value. Its true value lies in its absolute blandness. It looks beautiful in the bowl, as creamy as fresh snow. If I didn’t add a dab of maple syrup it would be entirely tasteless, but a double portion creates the illusion of a well-fed full belly, not unlike those poor whales who have washed up with guts laden with plastic pellets. They could use a touch of maple syrup.

The good news is that my diet is slowly returning to normal, but to follow the theme of last week’s blog, the bad news is that my taste buds are changing in some way related to age, but unrelated to Covid. It has nothing to do with the sudden disappearance of the ability to smell or taste, but which later return when the other symptoms subside; this feels permanent.  I did hear recently of someone we know whose sense of taste has never returned, resulting in a general loss of interest in eating. If you’re thinking that it would be a great way to lose weight, watch out what you wish for.

In my case, it’s a kind of blunting of the richness of some taste experiences, not for all foods, but for some that have always brought pleasure. Nothing is tasteless, but the sensations are muffled, as if there was a paper bag between me and the food.  I need to do some research on the physiology of this shift and the ways in which it’s likely to worsen going forward. I think about the great chef Grant Achatz and his battle with tongue cancer which threatened to deprive him of any sense of taste. Fortunately, skillful surgeons helped him to avert what would have amounted to a death sentence for someone in his business. I do like to eat and hope to continue to enjoy that experience for as long as possible.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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