When Comfort Comes in Pots, Pans, and Custard Cups

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I’m in my grandparents’ backyard in West Virginia, looking at the tall, red stalks of rhubarb marching along the fence. My grandfather — Papaw — is cutting stalks for my grandmother, who will cook them into a sweet, but still tangy, side dish for dinner.

No. Wait. That was in the ’50s, when I was a little girl. Was the rhubarb really as tall as I remember, or was I just short? My final memories of Papaw are of singing a song to him he had taught me in the rhubarb days. He’s lived only in my heart for nearly 40 years now, taking his final journey when my daughter was a toddler. Granny joined him when my grandson, now nearly 19, was four or five years old.

Where was I really? Sitting at the counter in my kitchen in Indiana, slicing rhubarb I’d bought at the grocery store and, apparently, daydreaming or contemplating or something. Where did the time go?

It’s been too long to remember since I’ve last eaten rhubarb. I don’t generally look for it, but saw it when I was buying strawberries to include in a meal I was preparing for a friend who is in the hospital. My husband likes strawberry-rhubarb pie, but I’d never made it for him until Monday. (Don’t feel sorry for him: I even make him a pickled fish dish he always asked his mother to make, and I don’t like to touch fish.)

What I’ve mainly been thinking about lately is food — and comfort food in particular. I suspect that most people’s comfort foods aren’t all that diabetes-friendly, but they’re something we need sometimes.

“What did your mom make you when you were sick?” I asked my friend’s sister.

“Well, chicken soup of course.”

Of course.

It was March, shortly before Passover, when my friend found out he had cancer. It’s not a “good” cancer. Since then, he’s pretty much been in the hospital. He isn’t in great shape and he (and, most likely, his wife — also my friend) is tired of hospital food. People with cancer tend not to eat a lot anyway, and people are doing what they can to tempt his taste buds. She goes out and gets whatever food he wants, but that isn’t home cooking, either. It certainly isn’t Jewish soul food.

My original plan was to take some food to the house, where he should be right now. His wife needs to pay attention to her husband; she doesn’t need to be cooking a lot. He did go home, but quickly returned to the hospital.

When I asked his wife what he liked, she just said: “He likes anything you make: You cook the Jewish foods his mother made.” Helpful, but there are lots of traditional Jewish foods. Hence, the call to his sister.

Monday, the secretary at the synagogue took him some leftovers from a deli dinner we had over the weekend. A tomato-based soup chock-full of vegetables, some corned beef for a sandwich, and some fresh fruit along with a piece of cheesecake. Wednesday, I will take him homemade challah (he really likes my challah) and chopped liver, heartily approved by his sister. And, of course, chicken soup. Maybe a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie, if there’s any left.

Shortly after another friend had surgery, we were chatting on the phone and she suddenly said, “My mother made me potato soup when I was sick.” So I made her some potato soup. She returned the favor after I had surgery. Potato soup is one of my comfort foods, too. I hate to tell you what it does to my blood glucose, but have it I must at times.

I don’t know if you can alter potato soup to be diabetes-friendly, but the point is to have it taste the way it did when you were a child. Well, you can’t alter the potatoes but, while Granny used whole milk and I don’t, I do put a dollop of cream or half-and-half in the soup. And I no longer eat it with saltines, which add carbs and fat to carbs and fat, and would shoot my BGs from “ouch” to “holy cow!” (I don’t eat it often enough to figure out insulin doses and have been too lazy to figure out the carb factor. Besides, I’ve never measured the ingredients and don’t plan to start now. If it looks like Granny’s and it tastes like Granny’s, it’s the real thing.)

Another of my comfort foods is egg custard. Yeah, yeah, I know: Fat and cholesterol. I can still see my grandmother in the kitchen, bending over an open oven door, pushing a knife into the middle of the custard to see if it was done. She didn’t eat it because she had Type 2 diabetes, custard has sugar in it and, compared to today, it was the diabetes “dark ages.”

She had a set of china custard cups. I saw them on e-Bay one day. And I do mean “them.” They were in my brother’s shop. As it turns out, he had Granny’s custard cups and was going to sell an identical set that didn’t have a family connection, but “since you’re family,” I got them. Now, when my grandson has extensive oral surgery next month and will be unable to chew for a while, he can eat custard out of the same cups I did all those years ago. I wonder if it will mean anything to him.

Potato soup and egg custard. Those are my main comfort foods. I won’t even mention the Karo syrup and butter mixed together and eaten with bread. I confine that one to once a year. Papaw taught me that one, too.

Secondarily, I guess, are Mom’s vegetable-beef soup and Granny’s pinto beans and cornbread. At least the soup and the pinto beans are more diabetes-friendly than potato soup and egg custard (not to mention syrup and butter), but I’m not so sure about the cornbread, eaten hot with lots of butter the first day and room temperature and crumbled into a glass of milk the next, just like my grandfather taught me.

I do have a question: Does anybody have something like broccoli for a comfort food? That would be nice; then I could comfort myself at any time instead of only occasionally. Today, potato soup is calling me but, since I’m making chicken soup anyway, that will have to do. Truthfully, however, I’m really not all that fond of chicken soup and especially not with matzo balls. Overcooked macaroni, however, is a different matter. And still not very diabetes-friendly.

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