3 Reasons I’m Thankful For The Comfort of Food & Friends
Ok, so this is not your normal post-Thanksgiving post- we’re on to Christmas now. But there are times when we just have to say thank you, and
be appreciative of things that are not on the normal life-saving list.
Over the years as an expat I have travelled to places off the beaten path, literally in some cases, and to luxury places like Paris and London, Barcelona and Vienna, places that have an amazing gastronomic repertoire.
These cookies we had at a luncheon yesterday brought back wonderful memories of holiday treats our restaurants in Baku would prepare to make those of us not going home for Christmas feel a little less alone. There is something about food and friends that seems to fill up the empty holes, even if only temporarily. Our friends in the restaurants kept body and soul together for many of us.
Until you have been without comfort food- or just even food you recognize- it’s hard to explain how reassuring it is to have access to it.
Finding Comfort in Moscow?
When I went to Moscow after being in Baku for a long stretch, I found myself weeping over an order of fries from the McDonald’s near Red Square (Okhotny Ryad) while sitting in the snow on the curb (kerb). And I don’t even eat at McDonald’s… but it was such a slice of home after a long year away, it was just overwhelming to sit there like that. It had taken me 45 minutes to just be able to even place my order for a cheeseburger, fries and a Coca-Cola “with ice-no lemon” and another 15 minutes waiting and explaining why an American wanted ice in the drink when there was snow on the ground. There were no seats inside so I was happy to be a spectacle eating outside on the pavement. Comfort food will do that to you.
The next year I went to Paris for Christmas and after a long day at the Louvre (the DaVinci Code had just come out and I was seeing how close the details were. I know, I could have waited till the movie came out, but who knew?) I was exhausted. I fell into sleep almost immediately and missed my dinner reservation. I woke around 10pm and was ravenously hungry, but with limited options.
My nose led me down the Tuileries to an open aire Christmas Market where I could smell the most intoxicating aroma of bacon, onion and garlic wafting along. Whatever it was, it was in tune with my hunger- it smelled of comfort even from a distance.
I had nearly resigned myself to finding a Pizza Hut that I knew was close by but this was too good to not pursue.
Once at the market stall, the crowd was mesmerized by the largest copper pot I have ever seen. A man with arms like tree trunks stirred the kettle contents with an enormous wood spoon. It was like watching Hansel & Gretel except in this case the potatoes, cream, ham and onions were already done and no little children were added.
It didn’t matter that I had so little accurate French at that hour, this was literally point and pay. I was happy to be getting some of what everyone else had been waiting for. That many locals can’t possibly be wrong! Stuff in a styrofoam tray never looked so good. I sat at the tables in the park, eating along with everyone else. Another facet of comfort: companionship.
Gratitude For Caring
Tomorrow we’ll go to our local Outback restaurant (a chain of Aussie themed restaurants in America) for a charity lunch party put on by the owner/franchisee. Donna is one of those people who will do anything she can for her customers. Does the restaurant ever get an order wrong? Sure. But what about when my friend was laid up after emergency surgery? I called Donna and asked if there was any way they could make a “custom” order for her family so she could rest… No problem, was her immediate response. I like that, it’s very … yes, comforting.
But you know why I like Outback? It goes beyond even that. There is a connection that is like gratitude for being there.
I had flown into Houston to attend the memorial service after my father had passed away. As soon as I got my rental car I heard the evacuation notices. Hurricane Ike was heading straight for us in north Houston. The contraflow lanes would be activated and a million cars would soon flood the roads, inbound and outbound lanes would be utilized for evacuees. I might be able to get out in time, but there were no guarantees I would be able to get home from Austin.
So I stayed in my house with my daughter- at least I had a nice solid place to stay, a newly built brick home with “hurricane clips”. I had wondered what they were for when we built the house, and now I was going to see if they worked.
Two hundred miles offshore still and the winds had the palms and pine trees whipping around like rag dolls. We had wrapped the windows all around the house so we couldn’t see anything outside, but we could feel the rain pelting the roof and the winds buffeting against the flat walls. We were sheltering in the interior guest bathroom because it had no windows, so we could only tell when the eye of the storm passed over by the eerie calm and the settling of the house. Like exhaling a long breath, and sagging down in relief.
In our area of Houston we have huge old oak trees, hanging stately with Spanish moss. The morning after, they were neither stately nor hanging. Pulled up by root balls 10-15 feet across, they lay twisted on their sides, leaving gaping holes in the ground that looked like muddy swimming pools, so big were they. Houses ripped off their foundations, roofing everywhere except on the home it belonged to.
Survivor’s Guilt in Houston
When we could finally venture out, we were like every other disaster survivor- wide-eyed, shocked and saddened by the losses. The daylight was limited but we could see some roads had drained, leaving mud drying in the drain tracks. For three days we had been without power, hot food and showers. We saw a pizza place that looked like it was open- but it turned out to be workers surveying the losses. Everything was closed or destroyed.
As the darkness began to fall that evening my daughter and I understood the survivor mentality that takes over. We weren’t hurt or in trouble but we began to feel desperate as we looked over all the wreckage. We were a little confused when we saw the familiar red-orange neon angle that tells you an Outback is nearby. How did it glow if we didn’t have power?
We saw a crowd of people standing in line (yes, apparently Americans do know how to queue!)- which meant of course that I had to get in line too. I asked the man ahead of me what the line was for- he didn’t know exactly, but had heard that Outback was cooking (rather than losing) their perishable food stock for as long as they could. They were serving people meals to go, but cash only. They were making “lemonade” out of their lemon-situation. I didn’t know what we were getting, if it would hold out till we reached the front of the line, or if we would like it… all that mattered was it was only $15 and it would certainly be hot. When you’ve been without, it’s amazing how un-picky you can become.
We were fortunate that evening. I happened to have cash with me, and we were in the right place at the right time. And Outback staff cared about the community enough to come to the restaurant and cook, for the good of everyone- win-win. We ended up taking home two hot rib-eye steaks with broccoli, salad and bread. I was never so glad to see a steak in my life! Soon after it was too dark for them to cook anymore and the food rescue ended. They were heroes that day to hundreds of families.
So as we head into this very busy holiday travel season, rest and be thankful. Be extra appreciative of those who serve you, and make you feel welcome. More than the food, each of these stories has been part of amazing memories for me. I appreciate the people who made them possible and the tastes that take me back any instant that I find them again.
If I could find a copper pot like that one in Paris, I would cook for days! Yum.
Does this remind you of any food and comfort stories? Any people who have made your holidays special just by smiling and being there for you?