An article on breakfast about did me in for reading any more words on what's new, healthy, or chic in the food world. Dismissed out of hand as never appropriate was the classic American morning meal of eggs, bacon, pancakes, coffee. I felt a certain amount of proletarian ire: Perhaps some of us need those kind of calories for our work, or maybe some of us really like that kind of breakfast.
Then, not long after, I found myself alone at the table with a tuna fish sandwich, cherry Kool-Aid, and Oreo cookies. "Would you look at this. Where is the arrugula salad with olive oil?" sniffed the New York Times food section fan inside me. "Comfort food," answered the inner child.
The spectrum of people's food preferences runs from gourmet to ordinary, from high fat to low, from health food to junk. I suspect many of us travel back and forth between the extremes. I also suspect that when life gets tough, we return to foods that are familiar to us.
Earlier this year, a cooking school in Austin, Texas, invited famed Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme to give a demonstration based on his new book about low-fat hot and spicy cooking. But at the end of his presentation, the inquiry that drew loud and instant applause from the crowd of 500 had nothing to do with vegetable-based, low-fat food preparation. Rather it was: "How do I get the coating to stick on my chicken fried steak?"
Obviously, a lot of us want to eat and cook interesting, healthy fare. But we also want to continue the food traditions of our families. We don't want to spend an arm and a leg on exotic ingredients, at least not very often. We want to please our eaters, which may occasionally mean Velveeta cheese, meatloaf, or white bread.
A woman I respected above all others as someone who could create magic in her kitchen—enticing her busy grown-up children and her far-flung grandchildren to regular communion at her table—often served combinations that might have caused food snobs to raise an eyebrow. The "white supper," for example, included chicken breasts rolled in Bisquick, potatoes that had been peeled and cooked a long, long time, German sweet rice, and soft dinner rolls.
No one cared if it was all the same color or lacking in fiber. It was cooked just for us, with love. It was hot. It wasn't restaurant food or prepackaged fare. We all adored Grandma Ethel's cooking, and we came back for more, once a week on average, until her death this past spring. Without her phone calls, "I'm cooking tonight!" the family hasn't been nearly as cohesive.
A FEAST CAN BE very simple and still be a feast. The all-protein diet of many traditional cultures, the mostly vegetable diet of people in countries like Japan or India, the high-fat diets of people in the rural U.S. South, attest to the truth of the saying that there are no "bad" foods. If we eat in moderation and respect, and if we stay physically active, we will be living well. Eating is a big part of being alive, for all God's creatures. Let us do so with humility and gratefulness, whatever the food is.
Line up all the individual ingredients on your stove and kitchen counter, then have folks file by and make their own burritos. This is a fast and festive supper.
- Flour tortillas. Wrap them (2 to 4 per person) in a clean cloth and steam them by lowering cloth into a big pot that has a little hot water and a vegetable steamer rack in the bottom.
- Refried beans. Make your own from scratch (a pressure cooker shortcuts cooking time by 75 percent) or open a can or two. Spice them with onion, garlic, and chili powders, cumin, and a dash of hot sauce. Heat thoroughly.
- Shredded lettuce.
- Chopped fresh tomato.
- Chopped bell pepper.
- Chopped onion.
- Grated cheddar cheese.
- Other stuff as desired: black olives, sour cream, shredded cabbage.
This is a good chance to make use of the oddball-sized wooden and pottery bowls you may have sitting around your kitchen. n
CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas..