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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Comfort - A Hug in a Dish

We talk about favorite foods, meals and comfort food. What food is like a hug to you? Does it change, evolve or has it stayed the same since childhood? Earliest food memories for me involve typically child friendly meals like burgers with fries or pizza, but one memory tucked so far back I count it in with earliest life experiences and one of the few I have with my paternal grandmother it has become more than sentimental.

I was well under five years old and I know this to be true because she died before I was six. I was sitting at the foot of the eat-in-kitchen table as she scraped the remains of a beef stew from a pot to a bowl. "Ew," I said with a wrinkled up nose.

"Ew? No, it's not. It's beef stew and it's very good."

To cover up, I lied. "I wasn't talking about the stew," and I grabbed a crayon and continued to color in the coloring book at hand. Honestly, the stew gave my childish palette the creeps but I knew enough that I didn't want to have any type of conflict with my grandmother. I knew I loved her. This was the woman who fussed and made sure I had hair ribbons to match my dresses. This was the woman who let me play dress up and touch her wigs. I even remember her telling my grandfather, Popper, to ride on the swing set with me - and he did.

Beef stew. I remember a thick brown gravy, potatoes and a variety of vegetables. I also know my mother made a version that I also avoided based on appearance. Kids can be fussy, but we are also firm. When forced, I would eat the meat and sometimes the potatoes, but never the vegetables and I never had enthusiasm for the dish.

Until Julia Child. Until the Julie and Julia movie. Until Boeuf Bourguignon (Please read with her accent and voice - it makes a vast difference.)

While this link belongs to Oprah, it is Julia's recipe...

My own beef stew ensued. Technique. Browning meat. Using a cast iron dutch oven and learning to let the dish slow cook for hours. Steps to a process rather than throwing everything in and looking forward to the peeling, chopping, simmering. The smells. Onions, mushrooms and carrots - no green vegetables. A splash (or 2) of red wine. Separate fluffy, clouds of mashed potatoes on the side to sop up the gravy goodness. Herbs and a bay leaf. A wooden spoon.

I served the dish to family and friends at my mother-in-laws surprise 80th birthday party and while some of the younger generation shied away form the unusual appearance and misunderstanding of the dishes name, the over 40 crowd and my immediate family knew from experience it is a soft and tender beef treat. I have also prepared this meal for holidays from Christmas to Easter with modifications that may include beef short ribs or the most tender of sirloin tips. Nothing in the world of beef can compare to the gentle falling apart of the meat when pierced with the tip of a fork.

Maybe this is exactly what my grandmother's stew tasted like - I am sorry to admit I will never know. But, when I make mine, I do think of her and my mother and Julia Child and wonder if some day my family will look back on the meal and think of a hug in a dish.

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