Poor Man’s Feast: The Importance of Making Comfort Food

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A simple rule of love: when they ask for something special, give it to them. Don’t throw vegan January at them (unless they’re a vegan), or keto January, or New Year/New You.

Not health food.

Here’s what things have looked like over here since last spring:

May 2023: I go through a week-long, at-home medical detox. Not to be confused with a smoothie detox, or a green juice detox, or a New Year New You detox, a kichari detox, or a lemon juice detox. Apparently, my liver is extremely unhappy with everything that I and my longtime professional food-writer/former wine-loving self has thrown at it since acquiring viral hepatitis related to mononucleosis when I was sixteen. (You’re looking kind of orange this morning honey is not anything a teenager wants to hear as she’s leaving for school with her field hockey stick in tow.) More to come about this.

August 2023: My wife is diagnosed with lower back stenosis connected in large part to her having been a serious athlete for most of her young and adult life. Various attempts at pain relief fall flat, except for acupuncture, which is a Godsend.

September 2023: We go to Maine for our usual two-week stay in Owl’s Head, followed by a week in Rockport, where I finish the last portion of my residency at Barnswallow Books while Susan works remotely. We bring our golf clubs because we expect to play with my college friend Louise and her lovely golfer husband, Mark. The golf clubs never leave the Thule box on top of the (of course) Subaru because Susan’s knee goes out during week one, and she can barely walk for the rest of our stay.

Susan (left); Elissa (right). Pre-back/knee stuff. Put us on a golf course and we will take you down.

Mid-September 2023: Pete, our elderly and completely deaf dog, no longer knows where he is when the sun goes down.

Early October 2023: We have to put our beloved Maine Coon, Charlotte down, at fourteen years old.

October-November 2023: Susan, who had melanoma surgery in 2022, is prescribed a six-week course of topical chemotherapy. She seems fine until the end of week three, when she starts to look like her beautiful Scots-Irish face is falling off, like the Nazi in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. She has two miserable days involving 3 a.m. applications of a frozen washcloth to her face, which she says feels like it’s been attacked by fire ants. When it’s over, we breathe a sigh of relief. Then we find out that she has to do this every year.

Late November 2023: I contract a mild case of Covid, which lasts five days.

Christmas 2023: Susan contracts a mild case of Covid, which lasts five days.

Late December 2023-January 2024: I contract another case of Covid, not-at-all-mild, and spend three weeks with an on/off fever which finally breaks and leaves me sounding like the spawn of Bea Arthur and Harvey Fierstein.

[January] was my month for yogurt bowls with bee pollen, for taking up running again and heading to the beach for daily cold plunges after I break through the ice with the pick-axe I happen to carry in my car.

January 17th: Pip, our young gray tabby, sits on the middle of the dining room table and sneezes ten times in a row, violently spraying cat snot everywhere including on our ketubah, which hangs in the dining room in a nice walnut frame. He gasps for air and looks at me, stunned. Four more sneezes and he flees from himself.

January 18th: I take Pip to the vet early in the morning for antibiotics; he shrieks the whole way there and the whole way home, like I’m tearing out his claws. Susan takes Pete to the vet late in the afternoon for another injection meant to rebuild the muscle cells in his bad back leg, which is marginally worse than his good back leg, which sucks.

January 19th, 2024: Susan has two skin biopsies. It is freezing outside. We sit in the car and stare at each other. The parking lot at the doctor’s office is packed. People begin emerging bandaged and band-aided and a little wobbly, like the bloodied guys with the fife and drum in Archibald Willard’s Spirit of ‘76. We marvel at the number of people having procedures during week three of the new year.

So is this what it all comes down to? I ask her, when it’s over. The wheels come off the bus all at once and you spend the last third of your life putting them back on, playing healthcare whack-a-mole.

Susan fidgets with the small brown paper bag on her lap, which is filled with long Q-tip swabs, pressure bandages, and tiny packets of Vaseline.

It feels like that —- she says, looking out the window. Also, she says, they told me I might have a black eye.

I bring Susan home and ask what she wants for dinner.

Chicken p—I start to ask when she cuts me off.

Parmigiana? she says, brightening. Because I thought that’s what you said.

No, I didn’t. Is that what you want? I ask.

Susan whimpers: Yes.

Did you remember to take your cholesterol pill? I ask her.

Yes, she says. Did you?

Parmigiana involves breaded and fried meat or eggplant drowning in tomato sauce and covered in a thick blanket of bubbling mozzarella. It is usually served with pasta, more tomato sauce, more cheese, and a Caesar salad, which also contains more cheese and, if you’re making it the right way, a raw egg.

We normally eat very carefully, but well. But when she requested this meal, I did not throw at her the following: health, wellness, diet, aging, clogged arteries, fat intake, or our January plan to hike Kathadin in 2024, the way my Mainer friend Kathleen did when she was just about recovered from pre-vaxx Covid in 2020, because this is the kind of thing Maine people do.

Years ago when I was in publishing, editors had a name for the post-holiday winter season: NEW YEAR, NEW YOU! All of the books that we published having anything to do with health, wellness, diet, aging well, weight loss, and recovery were lumped together into this category and season, which is one of the most lucrative for publishers because it is linked to the idea that, come January, we all get a clean slate. We get to start over. We get to begin again. What we fail to understand is that January is also the season of flu, of post-holiday travel lurgy picked up between airports, of cold and dark and dreary when I, for one, want to stay inside and preferably in bed.

In 2023, I turned sixty, Susan turned seventy, and suddenly we were like the 1988 Mercedes Benz diesel station wagon that my friend Beth used to have, that was in the shop every other week for the repairs that kept it running and belching fumes on the long weekend schlep from the city to northern Connecticut. We keep falling apart and keep getting pasted back together again and again.

I am told this is normal.

Life is like parmigiana. Sometimes, you just want comfort.

So I made the decision to give Susan what she wanted: chicken parmigiana. I went to the supermarket. I paid the cashier while a snide, eye-rolling, GenZ child packed my grocery bag, putting a six-pack of lemon Spindrift and a four pound chicken on top of the eggs. I asked her to repack it. She snorted. Her manager walked by, so she unpacked and repacked it, while intermittently checking her TikTok feed. Is this good enough for you…DEAR? she asked, shoving the bag at me.

Were you raised by wolves? I asked, picking it up, putting it in the cart, and heading for the door.

Let me know if you, you know, need any help getting it out to your car, DEAR, she said. Have a nice day. DEAR.

Normally, I would have had a conversation with the manager, who is a small red-headed man of twenty. Instead, I went home and made Susan the parmigiana she wanted. It was delicious. I am embarrassed to say that we ate it in front of the television. I clicked around looking for something with Helen Mirren (so sue me) and ended up watching Grace & Frankie, which we like very much because it involves two vibrant women who are significantly older than we are and who live in a gorgeous beach house in La Jolla overlooking the Pacific where there appears to be no erosion and no fires and everyone has a beautiful kitchen and fabulous children including one who is in new recovery and is the Obi-Won of the entire group. No one has bothered dragging Grace off to rehab after she has yet another shaker of martinis for breakfast, and no one should read into the fact that Frankie accidentally ends up at the Mexican border one afternoon because she gets lost in her own backyard, driving her new granddaughter around in her Leaf with a dead flip-phone.

No one is perfect.

Life is like parmigiana. Sometimes everything is incredibly bad for you, and sometimes you just need it, want it, must have it despite your LDL and the fact that your cardiologist is going to read you the riot act the next time you see her. Sometimes, you just need the baby blanket. Sometimes, you don’t need change. Sometimes you just want comfort.

Lately, the universe has been throwing a lot of shit at us, and it seems to be coming harder and faster with every year. This month was my month for yogurt bowls with bee pollen, for taking up running again and heading to the beach for daily cold plunges after I break through the ice with the pick-axe I happen to carry in my car.

Instead, my wife asked for parmigiana, and I made it for her. Okay: for us.

And it was good.

This post was originally published (with a recipe!) on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The James Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.

Images courtesy the author.

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