Memories make it comfort food

The menu at an American restaurant I went to advertised "comfort food," with things like "mac and cheese" and "chicken tenders." It seemed strange, since I think I've eaten mac and cheese only once in my life and thought it was a disgusting imitation of Fettuccine Alfredo.

My grandfather once said, "For every seat there is an ass," and I guess everyone has their own comfort food. For Italians - or at least for this Italian - spaghetti is a comfort food. My Filipino friend once told me that when he was down, he ate "comfort food - you know, rice." A Puerto Rican friend felt the same way about rice - going so far as to eat rice with everything, even pasta.

Spaghetti makes me think of Grandma Ida and her jars of tomatoes from the previous summer, the steam of boiling water in her kitchen, and the smell of the salt water pouring through the "scola maccarun." (The American word, I learned in college, is "colander," but "scola maccarun" has more character, like using a wooden spoon to stir the sauce.) Every Sunday, we ate "dinner" at 1 p.m. (my American friends couldn't understand why we ate "dinner" at lunchtime. "It's an Italian thing," I'd say.) It was a day with cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents, and dinner started with spaghetti.

Every woman in my life has made spaghetti with her own characteristic taste. Grandma Ida used fresh tomatoes and a little salt. My mom uses lots of basil and onions. Grandma Mary used pork fat and garlic. My mother in-law, a Northern Italian from Padua, used lots of butter.

I was 17 years old when I lived in Rome, and I frequently ate at a trattoria where the beautiful matron made me spaghetti all'arrabiata with fresh tomatoes stewed with pepperoncino. For 3,000 lire (about a $1.50 back then) I would sit under a sidewalk umbrella at a restaurant on Viale Aventino, sweating from the spicy pepperoncino while I'd admire the stunningly beautiful Roman women that walked by. It was around that time, and after a plate of pasta, that I met the most beautiful woman in the world - my wife Carla - in Rome. Actually, I met her in a convent in Rome - another story for another time.

But my wife's pasta is ever changing and ever mysterious - like her mood. And tonight, she made me a pasta so mystical, I wept. Elements of Grandma Ida with the jarred tomatoes from the prior summer. Elements of Padua, with a buttery flavor. Elements of Roman lust stewed with pepperoncino. All these memories, all these comforts, came flooding as I sweat from the spicy heat remembering beautiful women who have passed - my grandmothers, my mother in law, and other beautiful women still around.

I'm pretty sure that comfort food is not meant to be the most healthy choice. Too many carbs, too much pigfat and butter aren't on the American Heart Association's recommended diet and are best taken in moderation. But when they're mixed in with a little pepperoncino, a garlic clove, jarred garden tomatoes and made by Carla, well, it's a comfort I'm willing to die for.


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