When I was a child, my mother would sometimes order egg foo yung from a local Chinese restaurant. None of us would eat it – it was too odd, with the eggs and gravy. We wanted “real” Chinese food, with cut up vegetables on crunchy noodles and rice on the side.
It was years before I tried egg foo yung. I can’t remember why I ever ordered it. (Bob would probably say, “because of the gravy.” He would note that I had a real Midwesterner’s appreciation for gravy.) But I can remember ordering it from the Chinese restaurant in the strip mall next to the apartment complex where I lived north of Albany. It was a perfect winter dinner – eggs, rice, and gravy. An order was always enough for several meals and it wasn’t the type of dish where the leftovers were disappointing the next day. And, of course, there was usually leftover gravy and rice after the eggs were gone.
On Monday night, Bob’s birthday, after Yizkor services – and after Passover ended, I called a local pizza restaurant to order the “traditional” “Passover is over” pizza. The phone rang and rang. No answer. The pizza place is on the Marathon route, so I guess they must have been closed for the day. The road was closed far earlier than they would have opened and the workers wouldn’t have been able to get in. So I called my favorite Japanese / Chinese restaurant (in the same strip mall, but open) to order some sushi. Not exactly a post-Passover meal – other than the soy sauce there was nothing I wouldn’t have eaten on the holiday. I ordered a spring roll as well and then, without planning to, I heard myself add vegetable egg foo yung to my order.
As I drove to the restaurant, I wondered, why egg foo yung? Then I remembered that the last time I ate egg foo yung was the night of the annual holiday party at the assisted living where my mother-in-law lives. We were never fond of the party and each year, after making an appearance and spending time with my mother-in-law, Bob and I would go out to dinner. The meal was the highlight of our evening. This year after a long day at work, heavy traffic, and the holiday party, I stopped for take out and on a cold, dark, snowy night ordered egg foo yung.
Monday night, reflecting on this, I realized that egg foo yung has become my comfort food. Heartier than an omelet, both tender and with a crunchy edge, it is as perfect the next day for breakfast as it is on the night I order it. And there is gravy and rice. Gravy and rice (without eggs) may be the perfect comfort food.
As I ate it, I wondered – what was Bob’s comfort food? I had no idea. It’s funny. I can look at any Restaurant Week menu and tell you whether or not he would “make a reserve.” I can look and know exactly what he would order. But I couldn’t figure out his comfort food. Did the man who often said, “Life’s too short to eat bad food” have a comfort food? Comfort food, by definition, is not fine dining or fancy cuisine. It’s basic, nostalgic, simple. But good food can be basic and simple. Some of the best meals we had together were simple, memorable, and good.
Bob loved cheese. And ice cream. He could be happy with a dinner of assorted cheeses and a baguette. So I thought maybe that was his comfort food, but it didn’t feel right. Bouillabaisse – another favorite, but not quite right. Maybe he didn’t have a comfort food.
Tonight, as I was reheating the leftover pizza from last night, and thinking how weird it was to have so much left over from a 10″ pizza, I decided his comfort food must have been mussels. He loved them. He ordered them on our first date at a Thai restaurant in Albany. He had them often at Legal Sea Foods. He ate them in Belgium, in Paris, and St. Martin. The answer I was searching for must be mussels.
My subconscious, however, must have been seeing the pizza pie and thinking about gravy, because then it came to me – chicken potpie was Bob’s comfort food. We didn’t have it often, and he was exacting in his standards for what constituted a good potpie. Still, he was always happy to find one in the freezer and if I was out at a meeting, it was his perfect night at home alone dinner. (Perhaps I should point out that it, too, had gravy.)
And as I type “pie,” I am reminded of how he loved apple pie and how often I would buy it because he loved it. I don’t know if dessert constitutes “comfort food.” I don’t think it does. I think dessert is just dessert and is joyful because it is dessert. But if dessert can be a comfort food, then apple pie and Indian pudding, both served with vanilla ice cream, were his “comfort desserts.”
I didn’t plan to order egg foo yung on Monday. It was not supposed to be my post-Passover dinner. But I’m glad it was. The sushi waited and became Tuesday’s lunch. Monday night, post-Yizkor, while the Yizkor candles continued to flicker in my kitchen as they sputtered in their tiny pools of remaining wax, I needed eggs, and gravy, and rice. It was comfort food, not pizza, that moved me this year from the holiday back into the every day.