Saturday, December 30, 2006

Comfort me with apples

Several weeks ago I was out doing yard work when I heard a rustling in the bushes nearby. Ever mindful of the local skunk and raccoon population, I edged closer, brandishing my plastic rake in an attempt to look menacing to whatever rabid animal I found. I'm sure I scared the bejeezus out of the squirrel that was commando-crawling out of the bushes and across the driveway separating our house from our neighbor's.

As far as I could tell, it had fallen off of the very large tree nearby and broken or otherwise hurt both of its back legs, which were dragging uselessly behind it as it scrabbled pitifully across the pavement. I felt sorry for it, especially since my back yard is a stop on the Underground Cat Railroad, judging by the number of strays and/or neighborhood cats who stalk things near our patio.

I went back to raking, but I couldn't put the poor little bugger out of my mind. Should I kill it? With what? I know you can chop the head off a snake with a sharp shovel, but this wasn't a snake, and my shovels aren't sharp. Maybe whacking it upside the head with a brick? Was that any less disturbing of a mental image than the current one of Rambo the squirrel heading for cover in the bushes?

By the time I got back around to look for the squirrel, it had taken cover near the base of the tree, close enough to our other neighbor's frequently-barking-dog to probably be safe from cats for a while. Now I switched worries - instead of a quick death at the hands of Blackberry, the poor thing was going to starve to death. Should I try to find something to feed it? Would food attract cats? What do squirrels eat, anyway? Could it eat acorns now, or do they need to soften up over the winter to be palatable?

As I raked and kept mulling over the problem, it occurred to me that my instinctive response to almost any sort of crisis is to fix the problem with food. Death or illness in the family? Bring a casserole. Feeling sick to your stomach? Ginger ale and crackers will fix that. Baby cranky? Time to feed her. War in Somalia? Maybe if we all sent over some cookies, they'd stop fighting.

This point was driven home later that same day, when I took some of the cookie exchange party leftovers over to a friend who couldn't make it because her kids were sick that day. When I got there, I found a note on the door saying that they had left to take their child to the emergency room because it was the only thing open and she had gotten worse that afternoon. It was about 5pm, and my first thought was, I wonder if I should stop by McDonalds and pick up some food for them to eat while they wait in the hospital?

I guess cooking is safe for me. While I'm not that comfortable lending a shoulder to cry on, I'm perfectly willing to provide soup for you to cry into. Offering food makes me feel like I'm making a contribution, but it generally doesn't involve a whole lot of effort on my part. High positive karma points, low effort required.

I know I'm not the only one who responds to a stressful situation by firing up the oven. I recently read a series of autobiographies by Ruth Reichl, the former food critic of the New York Times (among other things). Many of her anecdotes involve how she used every stressful situation as an excuse to hide in the kitchen for days, making ever more complex meals and dishes. Her second book, Comfort Me with Apples, was easily the worst of the three. It really should have been called Comfort Me with Semi-Anonymous Adulterous Sex, but I guess that probably wouldn't have sold as well as a book titled after a line from the Song of Solomon. I found it difficult to read about her affairs while married to someone she admitted was a very nice man, and I find it difficult to believe that she can actually recall in perfect detail every course of the meals she ate with her lovers. I'm lucky if I can remember what I had for dinner yesterday, much less what I ate on my first date with Jason.

But aside from that volume, the Ruth Reichl books are entertaining and enlightening. She sprinkles them with a handful of recipes, none of which I've tried, but few of which seem beyond the scope of an average cook. I mean, how hard can it be to make scrambled eggs with matzoh?

So if you have a chance to check out Tender at the Bone or Garlic and Sapphires, I highly recommend them. They won't change the world or fix the problems in Somalia, but they did make me forget about Rambo for a few hours. Now THAT'S a review any author would be proud to receive :)


Derbecker said...

Cooking for comfort is not uncommon. I bake cookies for my son when stressed out. He's too young for them (13 months) but the act itself calms me down. I have 9 dozen chocolate chip cookies in the freezer simply from my last week at work...

Anonymous said...

I use cooking to relax.

My meals are a reflection of the
difficulty of my day. If I have had a stressful day, then my meals are much more complex than if it was a simple day.

While in the horrible experience of graduate school, I had a habit of cooking elaborate meals. I graduating into a nuturing job and my cooking became much simplier.

Then, one day my wife came home to find me stewing tomatoes and rolling noodles for a lasagna. We didn't understand what was happening until I told her that I had gotten a call from my former advisor seeking money. It then became clear that cooking was my stress relief.