Food is the fuel for our bodies. All living creatures must have it in some form on a regular basis, or we will simply wither away.
That, of course, is the most basic element of life, not taking into account what our necessary food is or how it tastes. Sustenance need not be pleasurable— it just has to be there.
But sustenance can be, and often is, a deep and abiding pleasure, one so rich that it is woven into rhythms and memories throughout our lives.
Take soup, for example.
I have always loved soup of all kinds, and several Saturday mornings ago, I stood in my kitchen holding a mug of warm vegetable soup, watching out the window as cardinals pecked for their sustenance in our yard. The little girl I once was came rushing back as she greeted her beloved grandmother, arriving at my childhood home for a visit from her home in Kinston.
Gobbie always brought two delicacies so special to me that I believed she alone could make them: Gobbie soup and Gobbie custard.
Adult Margaret now knows that they were really her lovingly-prepared versions of homemade chickenvegetable soup and what we Southerners call “boiled” custard, an old-fashioned concoction of milk, eggsand sugar, so rich and so delicious that my children actually fuss over who eats the most when a friend brings jars of the divine liquid every Christmas.
Little Margaret, though, understood only that Gobbie had made these special foods for her special first grandchild and her family and had brought them to Fayetteville with much love.
It was a bit of a shock when I realized Gobbie also brought these goodies to her other grandchildren, my cousins, but that is another column.
At Christmas, Gobbie also brought two kinds of Gobbie cookies, one with dried fruits and nuts made from an Austrian recipe handed down in her family. I have Gobbie’s special recipes, handwritten in a spiral notebook, and have tried to make those cookies, but all the rolling and dough-forming did me in. The other recipe, which she called “Rocks,” is more my speed, with raisins and walnuts and lots of butter dropped onto a baking sheet. This recipe, which I have guarded in a way I have guarded no other, makes dozens of cookies. Even though I give many away, we always have some left over.
Two Christmases ago, I must have been feeling a bit lazy, and I skipped baking Rocks. Much to my amazement and deep satisfaction, my children — who had never said much one way or the other about Rocks — missed them. I promised never to fall down on that job again.
Rocks, it seems, are more than sustenance.
Several years ago, I began encountering the term “comfort food.” It seems to me that food in general is a comfort, since without it we would all be terribly uncomfortable. Particular foods, however, are associated with the term — macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, chicken potpie, plain soups and stews, baked chicken with rice, milk, maybe ice cream, and my own all-time favorite, pimento cheese. We probably do not put white wine, asparagus, sole, chocolate mousse or goose liver pate in the comfort food category even though we may enjoy those foods as well.
So what is the difference?
We are not talking calories or vital nutrientshere. We are not talking about the fuel that keeps our bodies going, not the sustenance that allows us to breathe and walk around.
What we are talking about is the feeding and care of our souls.
What Gobbie soup and Gobbie custard did for me, what the memory of them still does, and what Rocks do for my children is remind us that we are loved.
They take us to a time when someone prepared for us ordinary foods that warmed our bellies, sustained our bodies and made us feel safe. They recall for us a time when we did not know enough to worry about school, jobs, bills, health, community obligations or any of the myriad responsibilities we all have, or to be concerned, even consumed by, the well-being of those we love. They zoom us back to a time when we were naive enough to think that life is simple and just and that we human beings are always kind to each other.
What they cannot do is leave us in our fondly-remembered pasts.
Real life, as we all learn the hard way, is complex and challenging, exhilarating and painful, occasionally fair and just, more and more mysterious as we move through it. Real life, as the television commercial truthfully notes, comes at us fast.
That is why we all return to our own versions of Gobbie soup when we need to and why we are what we eat — all of it.