During the week I manage and produce websites for LifePoint hospitals, sometimes writing healthy living articles for our affinity program publications.
Like most Boomers, I’m at the age when I have to exercise regularly, take my medications and watch what I eat.
Nutritionists often tell us that “we are what we eat.” If that’s so, I’m a large pepperoni pizza or a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit, depending on the time of day and where I am with my “seefood” diet.
Growing up in our Italian-American family of nine, the kitchen was the center of our universe. Someone was always there eating at the table, staring into the refrigerator or standing over the stove to prepare the next meal.
My mother, a descendant of Irish and German families, worked hard to recreate my father’s favorite Italian dishes. Many times I’d come home from school to find a pot of spaghetti sauce or risotto con funghi (rice with mushrooms) simmering on the stove.
Once or twice a year we would gather around the kitchen table and enjoy a dish called bagna calda (bahn-ya call-da, with a silent “g” like Fenoglio). Literally meaning “hot bath,” you could describe bagna calda as an Italian fondue. Taking turns so that we didn’t bump heads, we’d lean over to dip chunks of cabbage, green peppers, celery or Italian bread into a warm broth of butter, olive oil, minced garlic and anchovies.
The crunch of the fresh vegetables and the warm, salty flavor of the broth made this dish delizioso. We’d sit for an hour eating small bites, sharing stories about school, laughing about the dogs, lamenting about the Cubs, or discussing some other event of the day.
I think bagna calda is my favorite comfort food because it reminds me of my youth, my family and the indestructible bonds between us.
It’s like the scene in the Disney/Pixar film Ratatouille when Remy prepares a plate of ratatouille for the food critic Antono Ego. Ratatouille is a traditional French stewed vegetable dish that features tomatoes, garlic, onions, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers and herbs. The other chefs scoff at serving such a common, peasant food in a fancy Paris restaurant. Yet with the very first taste, Ego is immediately reminded of his mother’s kitchen and relives the savory tastes that he enjoyed in his youth.
According to Wikipedia, the term comfort food refers to “a variety of familiar, simple foods that are usually home-cooked or eaten at informal restaurants. It may also describe informal foods that are emotionally significant to a person or group of people.”
The significance of comfort food, I believe, has as much to do with our relationship with the provider of the food as it does with the taste of the food.
For me and the food critic in Ratatouille, the taste of our comfort food is enhanced with the memories of our youth. I remember a simpler time and a younger me when I depended upon my parents for everything. This is not an exercise in escapism—dreaming about a time when I didn’t have to pay bills, design websites or keep the grass mowed. It’s reliving a happy memory, among many, when I was the recipient of sweet, unconditional love.
It’s the same kind of love the Israelites experienced during their 40 years across the desert before reaching the Promised Land. After depleting the stores of food they carried out of Egypt, they had nothing but the gifts from a loving God. They committed their lives to God, who cared for them by sending quail in the evening and manna in the morning.
This daily bread from heaven nourished the people and reminded them of God’s unfailing love. When we pray the Our Father, we acknowledge the same dependence upon God for the sustenance we need: Give us this day, our daily bread.
When we celebrate Mass, we gather together as one community to reflect upon God’s word and to celebrate the Eucharist. Dan Schutte’s song “Table of Plenty” sets a wonderful tone at the beginning of Mass when we sing “Come to the feast of heaven and earth, come to the table of plenty. God will provide for all that we need, here at the table of plenty.”
After the Liturgy of the Word, we offer our prayers, our gifts and the simple foods of bread and wine at the altar—God’s kitchen table. Gathered around as one family, we witness the miracle of the Eucharist. The unleavened bread and fermented grape juice are transformed into the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.
His sacrifice upon the cross and again upon this altar is the best example of unconditional love. He asks us to eat his body and drink his blood in order to share in the kingdom of God. The Eucharist, according to Thomas Merton, prepares us for a contemplative union with God.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)
You are what you eat.
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Between swirls of homemade pasta smothered with three-hour bolognese sauce, Fenoglio writes at his kitchen table in Bellevue. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published in the August 7, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.