DURST: Home is Where the Covered Dish Is

We all know comfort food when we see it. Macaroni and cheese. Cinnamon raisin toast. Tuna casserole surprise with crushed potato chip crust. Squirrel scrapple. Any meal whisking you back to emotions and rhythms of a simpler time qualifies. A naive oasis sequestered in today's desert of smug braised sweetbreads on beds of radicchio drizzled with impertinent raspberry currant reductions.

Being from the Midwest, I could be permanently ostracized for even knowing what radicchio is. Salad is an eighth of a head of iceberg lettuce smothered in 1000 Island dressing, with a razor thin slice of tomato drooped bowlside only if cheffie feels creative. Living in the big city, I have come to realize I enjoy arugula. Makes me dirty somehow. Lurking spiderlike in the dark recesses of my high falutin pseudo sophisticated palate persists a primeval appetite for the consoling tastes of kidhood. And no, I'm not just talking grilled cheese sandwiches, but they're way high on the list. Top five easily.

Comfort food is the stuff you need to eat to feel better. The universal quintessence is chicken noodle soup. Certified by nanas of umpteen ancient cultures to contain mystical curative properties. And everybody knows Thanksgiving dinner is comfort food exponential factor four. Screw that Tryptophane BS; the real reason we nod out during halftime of the second football game is we're straddling a rare seam stitching tender nostalgia to culinary bliss. Or a succession of discrete head blows courtesy of recently paroled thug cousins.

On a personal basis, I have yet to encounter a rejection of the heart or a failure on the stage resistant to the first forkful of my mom's spaghetti and meatballs. Even while traveling, I have collected regional comfort foods my taste buds initiate salivation for when foot one hits the jetway. In New York we're talking Pastrami sandwiches from the Carnegie Deli as big as my head. Milwaukee: the cracker crust pizza at Zaffiro's. Skyline Chili in Cincinnati. Chicago: Mr. Beef. In San Francisco, its Diana's meat pie at Hunan on Sansome or burgers at Bills.

To truly convert it helps to witness firsthand the epiphinal accomplishments of comfort food. My baptism occurred during the first year my lovely wife Debi Ann lured me into enlisting in the Pritchard Posse for the annual assault on New Orleans' Jazz Fest. New Orleans and food go together like LA and asthma. Seattle and mold. Fireworks and beer. Unless you think cholesterol can kill. Then the Crescent City is an AK- 47 with a grenade launcher. Ground zero for the neutron bomb of foods. Destroys your internal organs, but leaves your will to drink intact. Surprised Zagats doesn't sponsor angioplasty balloons available next to the mints.

Our typical Fest regimen consists of sleeping till noon, out to the Fairgrounds, hours of wandering from stage to stage, eating and drinking in amounts repulsive to Sumo wrestlers, precipitating sundry treks to the secret grandstand bathrooms. Home around six, nap til nine, dinner, hit three or four clubs before staggering home near dawn. Then repeat. For eight days. Definitely where the maxim about needing a vacation to recover from a vacation originated.

We consumed soft shell po- boys, crawfish bread, pork cracklins, etouffee, snow cones, beignets, all before dinners at Emeril's, The Gumbo Shop, Courtyard of Two Sisters, Tujague's and Bayonna until Debi couldn't look at a two sided menu without suffering a brutal case of the shakes. The only recourse was a group sojourn to the Clover Grill for waffles. She required dough. And it worked. She was cranky no more. And many innocent walkie- talkie toting yuppies were spared grisly fates.

See, that's the deal. Comfort food morphs. Not just because of who you are, but where you are and how you feel. In Paris, after sauceous overdoseous, we decompressed at McDonald's. Mock if you will, but a Big Mac is globally indestructible. Miami, Moscow, Montana: tastes the same. No surprises. You know what to expect. Sometimes that's enough. The knowing. Reassurance is key.

At home, when Baby is feeling a little less than, I fix gumbo. Or beef stroganoff, or yes, macaroni and cheese. Of course I'm using Emanthaler and Gruyere now (don't tell her), and admittedly, the finished product lacks the precise day glo orange color of yore, but it abides. And when my life sucks and the world hates me and I'm living in a cartoon, the mere feeble attempt to recreate mom's spaghetti is like a slow warm belly rub. Speaking of which, anybody know where I can procure a halfway decent bottle of 1000 Island dressing?

There are times when Will Durst would kill for a debris sandwich from "Mother's".


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