Comfort Food: In Memory of Nora Ephron (1941-2012)
When we think about providing comfort to others and ourselves our first thought may not be about food. Yet, in many societies, it is customary to take a meal to people when they need support, are sick, or when someone dies. It is a way of helping people in trouble sustain themselves when the last thing they may want to do is cook. When I got divorced years ago, I jokingly lamented that fate had not made me a widow—just think about all those casseroles I would have received!
I recently thought about the role food plays in providing comfort when a neighbor asked me if I would make her a strawberry-rhubarb pie. I had made Elizabeth a strawberry-rhubarb pie in the past that she enjoyed, and she said she would love to have another. As soon as she asked me, she gasped, “I cannot believe I just asked you to bake me a pie!”
Knowing she had recently been very concerned about the health of her mother, I was delighted she asked. One of the first steps in taking care of yourself is knowing what you want and asking for it. The strawberry-rhubarb pie I made for her started me thinking about the role of food in our lives, and how it can be a great source of comfort.
I decided to conduct an informal survey of what food people turn to when they need comfort. Some of the answers I received were: pie, Tastykake Twinkies and Krimpets, sweets and desserts of all kinds, chocolate, homemade chili, meat loaf and potatoes, roast chicken with all the trimmings (stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy), pasta and gravy (this “gravy” is the Italian word for tomato sauce), and liquor (although I am not sure that qualifies as a food). Sometimes comfort is associated with a recipe from a favorite friend or relative to create food we know is delicious—food that signifies we are loved and cared for.
Anna Badkhen, who has lived and worked in the developing world most of her life, talked about food and her latest book, The World is a Carpet—Four Seasons in an Afghan Village, in a recent NPR interview with Marty Moss-Coane. Badkhen said the kitchen is often the safest place she experiences in areas where people face extreme conditions. For Badkhen, the best meal is not from a great restaurant but a meal made by people with the simplest ingredients who may not have much—one that is made from the heart.
There are times in our lives when the act of cooking may provide comfort. Years ago, not long after I had gone through a traumatic divorce, I read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. Ephron, who died last year, wrote “delicious comedies” with strong women characters and loved to cook for her friends. Ephron based her novel Heartburn on her divorce from Carl Bernstein when her children were very young. (You may remember that Bernstein was one of two reporters from the Washington Post who broke the Watergate story). I could relate to Nora’s story because some of the details were remarkably similar to my own divorce. One review described Heartburn as “a sinfully delicious novel, as soul-satisfying as mashed potatoes and as airy as a perfect soufflé.” (Ephron said that whenever she fell in love she started with potatoes).
Heartburn’s protagonist, Rachel Samstadt, is a cookbook writer. Just when her pain seems to be too great (for her and her reader), she provides a recipe for something you know will be sumptuous and satisfying. Now, I never did try any of Nora’s recipes from Heartburn, but including them seems “right on.” The recipes provide a distraction from emotional pain. It is a relief to focus on directions that will create something positive you can “take in”—something you can produce, consume, and will be under your control when everything else is falling apart.
Years ago my sister Hope, a “foodie” and the best cook I know, sent me the following recipe (you guessed it—my comfort food is roast chicken!). I recommend it highly for anyone who seeks comfort from roast chicken.
Roast Chicken from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook—Alice Waters (p. 247)
Choose a plump roasting hen, about 4 lbs., bring to room temperature
1 tsp. fennel seed
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper flakes
1 ½ tsp. additive-free kosher salt (we use sea salt or any other salt)
1 tsp. ground black pepper
A small bunch of fresh thyme
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Remove any excess fat inside the cavity of the chicken and in neck flap. Crack the fennel seeds in a mortar with a pestle and mix them with the cayenne, salt, pepper. Use some of the mixture and sprinkle inside cavity, stuff the bunch of thyme inside. Truss the legs loosely so that all areas, particularly the inner thighs are exposed to the heat (Waters suggests this, but Hope does not bother). Turn the wings behind the neck of the bird and fix them in place. (Hope just tosses it in the roasting pan). Use the remaining mixture of seasons to salt the bird all over, particularly the breast section. Set bird in roasting pan without a rack, cook for 1 hour. Remove from oven and allow it to relax for 5 minutes before carving.
Nora Ephron married again after her massive attack of heartburn and was very happy. Ephron’s six-word memoir is, “Secret to life—marry an Italian.” I like to think that one reason she was happy in her marriage was that her Italian husband could make good gravy. I also married again and am very happy. While my husband does not like to cook (he grills), we are best friends. I taught Elizabeth and her children how to bake a strawberry-rhubarb pie so they can comfort themselves whenever they want. As for my sister Hope, she continues to comfort me by sharing her “foolproof” recipes.
Badkhen, A. (2013). Four seasons in an Afghan village. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Ephron, N. (1983). Heartburn. New York, G. K. Hall.
Moss-Coane, M. (June 10, 2013). Radio Times [Radio Broadcast], Philadelphia, PA: NPR.
Waters, A. (1999). Chez Panisse Café cookbook. New York, NY: William Morrow.
-- Christina Robertson