Holiday season brings it out of us more than usual — thinking of favorite treats, traditional family sweets or not-sweets. The mere fact that we’re nostalgic about certain foods slides them into the comfort category to me.
On a trip south to Florida in February we stopped for some comfort food and coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. It was a long haul with our trailer, catching the tail end of the cross-country blizzard blitz. So we stopped for some quick nourishment, a little bit of warmth and comfort.
Coffee was being served in celebration cups, celebrating 60 years of Americans “runnin’ on Dunkin.’” Sixty years. 1950? America’s been runnin’ on dunkin’ for 60 years? I had no idea. How could it possibly be that Dunkin’ Donuts has been around almost as long as I have….uh…been around?
Wrapping my hands around that 60th Anniversary cup, I began wondering what America would have been like without runnin’ on Dunkin.’ Or what would we Americans be like without our comfort foods? Mean and grouchy, I suppose. The idea, of course, is to nudge yourself with your knowing self toward finding healthy comfort foods. And, so be it. Still, there are times when you just feel like “runnin’ on Dunkin.”
And, there are times when you just have to have that burger at McDonald’s. They’ve got the right idea at holiday time this year. They’ve got our number. And they’ve been around about as long as Dunkin,’ so they DO have our number.
They hit us right in the comfort food button. And, oh, it’s so easy to push that button. It got to me when I was trying to write a Christmas letter to put in my Christmas cards. I began equating the Simple Gifts of Christmas with heading to McDonald’s for a burger and fries, and a swig of strong coffee after a long, hard day of holiday preparations; and there was nothing made for dinner that night.
As we sat in the restaurant, they pushed my nostalgia buttons with their ad slogans, so simply highlighted on the food containers. “Sip the joy.” “Savor the joy.” “Indulge in the joy.” And, there’s more. “Share the joy.”
So that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m sharing the joy of that day’s simple gift at Christmas – of my enjoyment of relaxing at McDonald’s, while observing happy patrons coming and going from local school holiday festivities — grabbing comfort food.
Like my favorite Christmas lights, the holidays bubble up thoughts of tradition; and tradition (besides Dunkin’ and McDonald’s (or Taco Bell, to throw in another popular example) brings to mind the comfort foods of our roots, as well. At a recent holiday family gathering, we were dining out, celebrating my sister’s December birthday. One of my brothers brought, alongside the celebratory greeting-frosted cake, our mom’s favorite banana cake that we all grew up eating, and we all make to this day. That made me smile.
There’s not much that could be more American as a comfort food than banana cake, with cream cheese icing. There have been times when one of us has also brought to restaurant gatherings our all-time holiday comfort food dish: Cranberry gelatin salad. My grandma on my dad’s side started it. The recipe passed along to my cousin on my mom’s side, and the rest is history. There cannot be a Reed (maiden name) gathering without cranberry salad or it’s just not a Reed family gathering.
I knew that was true when our daughter phoned at Thanksgiving (on her cell from the grocery store) to ask me if she had all the right ingredients so she could make cranberry salad. It’s been fun to watch how that recipe is getting passed on down via all the grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Many families like to create cookbooks of their favorite comfort foods. One niece did compile a booklet of family recipes; and I have fleeting thoughts of writing a cookbook. Doesn’t everyone? My cousin, who champions the cranberry salad in her family, and my youngest brother, both have indicated an interest. But will we do it? Heavens, I can’t even get to my family genealogy.
There’d be some interesting things, though. Besides our version of cranberry salad, I’d include my favorite versions of potato salad, macaroni salad, baked beans, heavenly rice, oatmeal cookies, chicken and rice, homemade noodles, date cake, Mabel’s brownies (known around these parts as Hoosier Cake)…and the list goes on. My son reminded me, on Christmas Eve, about my Aunt Elaine’s onion chip dip. Oh, and I can’t forget my grandma’s version of green bean casserole. It’s in an old church cookbook. That reminds me of all the recipes I’ve thrown into church cookbooks I’ve helped create. You have to admit — church cookbooks are a major source for comfort food recipes.
Of course, I’d have to include my other grandma’s homemade recipe for doughnuts. We weren’t runnin’ on dunkin’ back then. But, boy did we savor the joy of grandma’s doughnuts. How on earth she had time to make doughnuts is beyond comprehension.
I’m sure everyone’s grandmother kept the family together by mere force of the family traditional comfort foods. Hmmm… How did I get from doughnuts to cranberry salad? No matter. Both have their place at the celebrating times in life. Sweet moments to savor; and a joy to share.
I wrote a column about the cranberry salad phenomenon a few years back; perhaps I’ll find and reprise for another time. But the simple recipe that indulges our family joy, you may enjoy right here:
Kittie’s Cranberry Salad
2 cups cranberries, 1 cup apples, 2 cups crushed pineapple (drained), 2 cups sugar, 2pkg (or 1 large) raspberry gelatin, 2 cups boiling water. Grind cranberries and apples. Mix with pineapple and sugar. Let stand overnight. Next day, whisk raspberry gelatin with two cups boiling water until gelatin is dissolved. Allow to cool to room temperature. Blend with fruit mixture. Pour into salad mold and chill until set.
Cranberry salad: It’ll do as a comfort food all through the year…for every holiday, birthday, or sundry celebration. Yeah, I know, the gelatin and sugar…but you can’t deny the health benefits of cranberries, apples and pineapple. And probably there’s a way to make it with real raspberry nectar and honey. I should really experiment sometime. But the other great thing about this recipe is that a little goes a long way, so it’s more of a condiment/comfort food.
All I know is, our family has a love affair with this particular dish. I’m sure it will show up at major events for many years to come. Like doughnuts, our comfort foods seem to stick around for a long time, passing down the generations. And, that — America’s famous food maven would say — is a good thing.
Ah, comfort foods. Perhaps the most universal of all is chicken soup. Hence the extreme popularity of those soup-for-the-soul books. Chicken soup works for perking you up when you’re down. And, it’s the ultimate remedy for over-indulging-in-the-joy at holiday time…the perfect antidote.
On our New Year’s resolution lists we declare: No more runnin on Dunkin’ or Big Macs – or sugary gelatin dishes. We head for the gym to work-it-all off. We begin our diet plans. And, so, what comfort food can we choose to indulge in that is healthy? What can we be nostalgic about to nourish both soul and body? Chicken soup…at least for awhile.
Comfort food fun links: