The Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite food writers, reflect on the humble dishes that have sustained us through good times and bad.
My parents' affections were inconsistent, their moods unpredictable, and, in those years, money was scarce. But at Grandma's, there were always hugs and kisses, copious amounts of food, and as much Coke as I wanted. To this day, it's still the thing I crave most when I'm very happy, very sad, or very anxious.
Never put ketchup on your dog. It's something I learned around the same time I was taught the concepts of "us versus them," and "good and evil"; that the Green Bay Packers were both "them" and "evil." Though I'm technically Jewish, I was raised with the knowledge that the Chicago Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs—and hot dogs—were my true religions.
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.
"Daniel, can I put some whipped cream on that slice of pie for you?" a sane, rational person asks me at some gathering. "Yes, please!" I say, unambiguously, enthusiastically, and then ask for a little more, without shame. Deep down, though, I feel the shame of something else. It's the shame of knowing I don't want just "a little more" whipped cream. I want all the whipped cream.
In ninth grade, with my father gone and my mother often out of the house, my limited culinary skills and unlimited hunger spurred me to start making what has become my go-to meal for just about every occasion: melted American cheese on a toasted English muffin. It's a combination that I still count on to get me through tough times.
Growing up in rural Minnesota, all we knew was frozen seafood: Frozen shrimp was a treat, lobster a splurge, and salmon a rarity. But crab sticks—processed white fish puréed into a cylindrical shape and tinted salmon-pink to resemble snow crab legs—were as common as canned tomatoes.
The tofu and greens had a beautiful, glistening quality, alive with what the Chinese call wok hei, the breath of the wok.
This is one of the wonders of great bread: that something widely seen as poverty fuel can feel like a luxury to even the most financially secure of individuals.
It's not that I didn't like Dad's chipped beef—I loved its salty-sour-creamy sloppiness. But it seemed like a throwback to my parents' impoverished grad-school days, and it looked frightening—a milky, hellish barf of a supper. Food you'd only ever serve to family. And our family was better than that.
My love of turkey sandwiches has remained a constant, well into adulthood. Maybe it's akin to my love of Breyer's vanilla ice cream over boutique brands; of Buicks over BMWs. Or maybe it's the fact that turkey sandwiches embody the same things my town's throwback "general store" was trying to evoke all those years ago—a hokey simplicity; a remembrance of things past; a surprise at how good the ordinary can be.
Even after Sex and the City went off the air, it was a presence in New York. I was 22, broke, and not very pretty, so my avenues of entry into that glittering world were limited. I didn't go clubbing in the Meatpacking District, I didn't drive around in private cars, I didn't meet mysterious billionaires at elegant cocktail parties. But there's one thing I did do: I ate cupcakes.
Lake effect. Wind shear. Thundersnow. Black ice. Polar vortex. Weather is not a dull subject in the North Country of New York, which often gets more than 200 inches of snow per winter. But when a blizzard howls and my 200-year-old house creaks in response, cabin fever kicks in, so that's when I get serious about grilling.
It's rare to meet another person who feels as passionate about celery as I do. Most people see the crunchy, long-ribbed vegetable as nothing more than a supporting ingredient. But it's more than that. Much more.
I've always had a thing for foods that melt in your mouth, but my obsessions with jellied delicacies and translucent slices of prosciutto pale in comparison to my love of soft, stinky cheeses. And Époisses de Bourgogne, a young, brandy-washed cow's-milk cheese, is the most treasured of them all.
The best thing I have ever eaten—a Serbian dish called palachinke—was made by my grandmother. A palachinka is pure simplicity: flour, sugar, salt, eggs, milk. It has the sweetness of a pancake but behaves more like a crepe. And I can now picture my grandmother making them, though she never once made them for me.
Mom's taco salad was meatless and crisp. It was topped with a modest quantity of queso fresco and toasted pepitas from Trader Joe's. While my mother's version was perfectly assembled, mine is gloriously messy, best eaten directly from the serving bowl while wearing sweatpants.
The dish that Mom rolled out once a year for my father's birthday was something she called shrimp curry. One of the primary ingredients is Campbell's Cream of Shrimp condensed soup. That core component puts it squarely in the land of the Midwestern hot dish, circa the 1950s—a concoction that could make it into the "Gallery of Regrettable Food." And yet I find it strangely delicious.
Cow's tongue, as my mom saw it, was one of the greatest cuts of beef, a fact she was convinced more people would realize if only they weren't too lily-livered to eat it. She made sure her children weren't among the ignorant.
Potato skins have everything you could ever hope for in a bar food—the crunch of the skin, the pull of the cheddar, the stink of the green onion, the chew of the bacon bits. From the first time I try them, at the age of 12, they're all I want. But if I eat them again now, in my middle age, I worry they will remind me of just how uncomfortable I am in my life.
For most of my life, I was what you might call an equal-opportunity bed eater—any food, any bed, any time of day. But it was by and large an unconscious habit, until the day that Josh walked in on me, head thrown back against one of his pillows, a faint smile on my face, and a bag of potato chips in my hand.
As long as there's a can of sardines in the cupboard, I feel safe. My love for all manner of canned, cured, and smoked fishes blossomed while I was in graduate school in England, but it was sardines that I fell for the hardest, and sardines that represented something beyond comfort to me—something more like relief. No matter how broke, I could cobble together a satisfying meal as long as I had a can of sardines and a box of pasta.
I don't really eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat them. I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to erase my mind. But what great pleasure there is in that span of unmindfulness!
Some people seem to have a second stomach dedicated to dessert. I have a second stomach for movie theater popcorn. Even after once disastrously overdoing it at a showing of Robocop 2, even if I stuff myself sick at dinner before hitting the movies afterward, I can't resist the urge to order popcorn at the theater—and I've started to learn just what goes into the best homemade popcorn, too.