The Comfort Food Diaries: English Muffins, My Saving Grace

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[Illustration: Zac Overman]

English muffins and I go back a long way; more than half a century, if I'm being honest. As a child, I'd eat breakfast with my dad every morning before he drove me to school on his way to work. He'd have a toasted Thomas' English muffin with lingonberry jam and farmer's cheese. We'd sit in the little breakfast nook between the kitchen and dining room in our modest split-level house, so close to Kennedy Airport we could hear the jets landing and taking off.

The lingonberry jam was too tart for my nascent palate, the farmer's cheese too reminiscent of dry cottage cheese. I just buttered my English muffins. I loved splitting them the way my dad taught me: poking a series of holes lengthwise through them with the tines of a fork, and then—presto!—pulling apart the two even halves. (These were the days before they came pre-fork-split in their packaging.) I loved the way those muffins smelled, too. It's a scent that comes back to me each time I think about my dad, who passed away when I was 12, during March of my seventh-grade year.

That year, Wednesday became my favorite day at Lawrence Junior High School. That was the day when they served English muffin pizzas in the cafeteria. The muffins were topped with squares of American cheese and dollops of tomato sauce (out of a massive can or jar, I'm sure). It was a perfectly balanced creation: crunchy, slightly acidic from the tomatoes, creamy and salty and a little sweet from the American cheese. Those English muffin pizzas became more than comfort food. They were salve for my wounds. Every bite conjured up images of my dad at the kitchen table, laughing at my jokes, a wry smile on his face.

By ninth grade, my mother had gone back to work full time, and, as an early and ardent feminist, she thought cooking was counterrevolutionary. Often, when I came home from playing some sport or another after school (sports were another way I found comfort), she would be off at a meeting, and I'd fend for myself come dinnertime.

With limited culinary skills, but unlimited hunger spurring me on, I started making what has become my go-to meal for just about every occasion: melted American cheese on a toasted English muffin. That combination kept me company, and kept me sane, when I was in our house all alone, my three brothers already gone off to college.

I learned through trial and error that there are a few nuances involved in perfecting this dish. The English muffin must be toasted to a golden brown before it's plucked out of the toaster oven. Only then do you top each half with one slice of American cheese. I use Kraft Deli Deluxe because the slices are so thick that, as the cheese melts, you get browned bubbles on top that give way to the luscious, creamy under-layer. If you make it right, the cheese blankets the English muffin halves perfectly, dripping down the sides without touching the toaster oven pan.

It hit the spot every damn time back then, literally in sickness and in health. In ninth grade, I was feeling the loss of my dad more keenly with each passing day. My mom had remarried by then to cope with her own loneliness, and then—in a particularly cruel twist of fate—she died a year later.

My parents have been gone for so long now, but my English muffin and American cheese tradition remains. I still count on it to get me through tough times. Each savored bite is a flight to temporary security, to a time when my dad and I would cover our ears to drown out the planes taking off and landing every few minutes. It's been that way for more than 50 years now. It's the cheapest form of therapy I know.