The Comfort Food Diaries: A Search for Comfort Food Comes Up Empty

cleanplate-web.jpg

[Illustration: Zac Overman]

Last August, I did something stupid: I brought my then-six-year-old daughter, Sasha, to Bui Vien Street, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This was stupid not because Bui Vien is seedy or dangerous (as some streets in the former Saigon certainly can be), but because I harbored ridiculous illusions relating to my own history of eating, and wanted to make them Sasha's as well. It was here, in a little storefront, when I was 22 and fresh out of college, that I learned how to eat a proper Saigonese lunch of grilled pork chops over rice.

I can still smell the smoke and caramelization, the fishy, sour tang of the nuoc cham in pitchers on the folding tables, and when I close my eyes, I can see the bits of char that have flaked off onto the pile of cheap white rice, the intense green of the stir-fried water spinach slopped to the side. I ate this almost every day for months, right here on Bui Vien, right where...wait a second.... Where was it?

As I dragged Sasha down the noontime obstacle course of parked motorbikes and street vendors that passed for the sidewalk, I couldn't spot it. One of these other businesses—the tour company, the tailor, the convenience store—must have taken its place. My beloved storefront grill was no more.

I was disappointed, and that was stupid, since I'd eaten grilled pork chops on rice at a million other places, in Saigon and New York and California. Some of those dishes were far better than the ur-chops from Bui Vien, too. But wherever I'd eaten them, and however good or less-good they'd been, each porky bite had transported me back here, to an era when I was as ambitious as I was confused, a confident and terrified young man who knew he could accomplish anything, if only he could figure out what that anything meant. Whatever else that time of my life was, it was a time of hope—hope and pork chops—and I wanted Sasha to understand that, here where it all started.

The thing is, Vietnamese grilled pork chops—com suon nuong, if we really want to be fancy about it—are no more (or less) meaningful to me than any of the other unusual, possibly pretentious foods I've acquired a taste for over the last few decades of foreign travel. When asked what food I turn to for comfort, I could've chosen pho. Or ramen. Or the cranberry-bean stew I learned how to make from the gentle apple farmer I spent a few days living with near Çanakkale, Turkey. Shell 'em; drop 'em in a pot with chopped onions and tomatoes, salt, more olive oil than you think necessary, and a glug of water; and cook over low heat until you get really hungry. Eat with warm, crusty bread and a tub of your neighbor Mehmet's yogurt, and live on the pastoral memories for years.

All of these feel right, and all of them feel inadequate. I wish my comfort food could be simple, a dish selected from the cuisine of my Eastern European Jewish forebears. Except that my family didn't eat that way. Grammy—my father's mother—was not an impressive cook. Once, I remember, she made a watery brisket that left me terrified of the cut for decades afterward. But even so, eating the good stuff—smoked Texas-style, or braised Roman Jewish–style, with tomatoes, rosemary, and chicken livers—still reminds me of Grammy, my favorite grandparent, and of all the things I loved about her besides her cooking: her nail polish–gnarled fingers, her careful makeup and coiffure, her warm and embracing bosom. No, that's not quite true, either: It's only thinking about it now that allows me to connect those dots. Most brisket I've eaten unreflectively.

Perhaps if my own parents had themselves focused on Jewish cooking, I'd now crave their irreproducible blintzes or transformative gefilte fish. But, apart from Mom's annual matzo ball soup and that one time Dad cooked an electric-purple buttermilk borscht, the foods they have made reflect their own itinerant lives and global aspirations. There's the Julia Child–ish roast goose with a stuffing of pâté-stuffed dates that Mom cooks at holidays, and her carefully composed Italianate salads in the summers, each year more minimalist, more austerely enticing—lettuce leaves, a sliced tomato from a nearby New England farm, anchovies. There were Dad's all-day cooking projects: Ed Giobbi's lasagna, from whose refrigerated leftovers I'd scoop my breakfast the next morning, or an effortful korma-like chicken curry, each individual spice painstakingly roasted. Tradition, schmadition.

We were always all over the map. We bounced around the Eastern Seaboard, lived in England for a while (where I acquired an affection for chicken tikka and newspaper-wrapped fish and chips), and took any opportunity to go overseas for vacation. Each place and time had its representative food—soft-shell crabs in tidewater Virginia, sweet corn in the Pioneer Valley—but none stands out as uniquely meaningful, to be consumed now whenever I'm sad or frustrated or as confused as ever, craving a taste that confirms for me my identity, that lodges me in history, that makes me feel good in a way no other dish can. That's what we mean by comfort, right? That's what Brillat-Savarin meant when he said, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," right?

In that case, I'm an 11-year-old kid, high on Domino's pepperoni pizza and two-liter bottles of Coke, playing Kid Icarus on the NES in my friend Egil's attic till SNL comes on. I'm a 10-year-old housing a half gallon of Breyer's mint chocolate chip after school and hoping MTV will show a Weird Al video. And I'm a first-grader looking forward to a sandwich of white supermarket bread, rare roast beef from the deli counter, and Mrs. Fanning's Bread and Butter Pickles. By lunchtime, it was always a sodden mess, and yet precisely what I needed, beefy and sour, crunchy and mushy. I want that sandwich right now, in fact. But do I want it because it is what it is, or because it is what it was? Do I even really want it at all?

I am the sum of my memories. We all are. And for those of us whose every memory is seemingly bound to food, each bite or sip or smell reminds us of who we were the first or second or 15th time we encountered it. Whether we are comforted by it depends, I guess, on each of us.

For me, though, the comfort of food is not about comfort—about security, stability, continuity. Those were not things I ever really expected, nor even expect now. All the foods I eat bring me back to other moments of my life, not all of them grand, but all of them real, and therefore worth holding on to. If all you know is that the ground beneath your feet is shifting, even if it's not obvious at the moment, you will eat what's before you, through laughter or through tears, and simply be glad you're eating. Food is comfort food. This, too, I hope Sasha one day understands.