Sunday, July 5, 2009

Comfort Food

Everyone has their comfort foods--foods from childhood, foods from home, foods that remind us of our favorite people and places and times. The thing about growing up in Kentucky and the Carolinas is that my comfort foods are not always the best for me. My sweet dirty dirty. The gravy, the butter, the sugary smoky sauces. Fried pork chops, fried apples, and the completely seriously named chicken fried steak. The pie crusts are made with lard and the biscuits are made with buttermilk. There is no part of an animal that can't be fried or pickled, and there is no vegetable that can't be improved by boiling it for hours with something cut out of a pig. The church picnics and family reunions with their deviled eggs, buckets of fried chicken, and mayonnaise soaked salads topped off with sticky cobblers and cakes so rich and sweet your teeth hurt. Chicken and dumplings. Pimento cheese. Bacon.

Obviously, I haven't been eating like this in Japan; that would be next to impossible. I think food like this is the very reason I hear Japanese people talk about smuggling in suitcases full of dashi and miso when they travel to the states. But that doesn't mean I wasn't trying. One of my biggest fears about going to a more plant based diet was losing my comfort foods, especially while I'm living abroad. Some days food is the thing you miss the most, and--judging by he laments of Brits without baked beans, Brazilians in stage 4 beef withdrawal, and Aussies setting up underground Vegemite-based economies--it's not just a southern thing

But I've been realizing that my comfort foods aren't all bad for me. I mean, after you take the pig (ok the mayonnaise, too) out of the equation, the foods I ate growing up were quite healthy. I took another look at the tables of my mother and grandmother's houses, the picnics, the barbecues, and I saw corn on the cob, black eyed peas, vinegared cucumbers & onions, beans and rice, and a huge watermelon staying cool in the creek. All the fresh raw fruits and vegetables we ate without even thinking about it. My time in the Carolinas was the first time I'd ever had seafood straight from the ocean, all steamed in a big pot with potatoes, carrots, and onions. Then there was all the stuff that was around when I was a kid that I wouldn't eat because I was a little weirdo--turnips and tomatoes and greens and beets--but my mom just kept serving them up.

Living in Japan and traveling in Asia has been awesome for my cooking. I make stuff I would have never dreamed of trying just a few years ago. But I always come back home. I'm trying hard to stay out of the mindset of eating the same but minus the meat, and I'm doing pretty good most of the time I think. In the end, though, you can take the girl out of the south, but, well, just ask me about the piggy-dawg some time. It sometimes feels like I could never make even my favorite non-meat foods without meat flavoring, but I'm finding that's not true. It's amazing how just a little touch of vinegar, molasses, hot sauce, cornmeal, or liquid smoke takes me back home. How much biting into still warm summer vegetables is just as satisfying when they're from my Kosugi yasaiya.

For some reason, summer makes me miss home more than any other season in Japan. Here's what I've been doing to keep myself sane.

My 4th of July Dinner. (1) Cole slaw. Red cabbage, carrots, & onion tossed in apple cider vinegar, honey, mustard seeds, and a soy milk-sunflower oil emulsification. (2) Baked beans. Pinto beans, onion, garlic, tomato paste, soy sauce, liquid smoke, molasses, mustard seed, & chili pepper, but there might have been one or two other things. (3) Shredded BBQ seitan. I can't remember exactly how I made the sauce, but mostly ketchup, sweet chili sauce, apple cider vinegar, liquid smoke, and chili pepper. (4) And of course, corn on the cob with a bit of S&P. Yummers!

The "I'm Homesick" Dinner I made for Max. (1) Okra soaked in soy milk, then dredged in a cornmeal mix and fried in sunflower oil. (2) Tomatoes are so good right now. (3) Sliced cucumbers and onion soaked in apple cider vinegar and honey. (4) Potatoes, green peppers, and onions pan fried in a bit of olive oil, then sprinkled with salt & pepper. (5) Tofu scramble.

One of my best food memories ever was going down to Rough River with my mom and Dave. We went out on the boat--a long, hot, fun day. Just as I was starting to feel peckish, my mom started pulling individually wrapped muffuletta sandwiches out of a cooler. It was the best thing I had ever eaten. Seriously. Just last week, when I replaced the stacks of salami and ham with roasted eggplant, mushrooms, and bell peppers, I realized that it wasn't the meat, but the olive relish that took me back to that day.

In a real-life example of how (not) to Southernize something, my mom used to love to eat a half an avocado with a spoon of mayo in the little bowl (surprisingly, she stayed quite slim). I thought it was gross at the time. These days I love avocados, though i like to fill mine with lime juice, chili pepper, & powdered garlic.


John said...

it's amazing how quickly you can get out of the habit of eating meat, and how if you only remove yourself from sugar and fat for a little while, the next time you have something fatty or sugary, it just tastes too sweet. I remember the first time I tried organic foods, and i thought they all had this awful aftertaste. Turned out it was the supermarket foods that had the aftertaste!

The muffaletta's were awesome!

James said...

Well-written, eloquent and Funny! Keep up the good work (and as one of the fortunate ones living in Toyama and getting to dine at Disco's - it is DELICIOUS good work!)


Adam Hockensmith said...

Wow. You are a very descriptive and fluid writer -- I had a great time reading about your cooking, and to tell you the truth, quite hungry now.

disco said...

thanks guys! i'm having a lot of fun in the kitchen these days.

and john i think for me even more amazing than losing the habit of eating meat and dairy has been how my thinking has changed. not like being obsessed with everything's nutritional value, but more like thinking of food in terms of how it will make me feel after i eat it, and being conscious of having a lot of variety so i don't get bored but also so i get all my vitamins. today i was at the greengrocer, and i realized as i was grabbing things, in my head i was saying, "orange, green, red, green leafy, fruit..."