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Cooking Up Comfort

Cold weather? A sick child? Natural disasters?

Please, somebody, get me a pot roast to make it all better.

I have turned into a slow-roasting, pot-pie-making, soup-stirring fiend this month. First it was the cold snap, which had me home-cooking vegetables, roasts and soups low and long in my oven, on my stove and in my crockpot. Then came Haiti's earthquake. The first thing I wanted to do – after finding a safe, loving home for every one of those children pulled from the rubble – was cook them a big pot of calalou, the salted-pork-and-vegetable stew a Haitian teacher in West Palm Beach made me and other students in her kreyol language class years ago. I still remember her excitement and delight as the soup pot simmered on the stove for two hours, each bubble triggering a fresh childhood memory she shared with us.

Comfort food – aka love in a bowl – has the power to soothe the psyche and invoke feelings of nostalgia, safety and security. Nothing slows life down like a big stockpot smoldering away. When I want to make it better, I head to the kitchen to putter and instinctively turn to the food I remember from growing up in Virginia: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup on snowy winter days; lasagna on birthday nights; the summer evening reward of a tart pie made of cherries picked from our backyard tree; hot apple cider on crisp fall days; Ginger ale (a treat when I was sick); meatloaf, which I detested at the time and which I find myself making for my own kids. Go figure.

Back then, I knew I was safe and loved because that full warmth spreading in my stomach told me it was so.

Comfort foods are created by family tradition and region. For my husband, who grew up in an Irish-American home, it's brisket, mashed potatoes, pot pie, stuffed cabbage, potato-and-leek soup. For my kids, born and raised in Miami…?

I can't help but wonder what my children will be cooking when they go off to college or move into their first apartment and a bolt of homesickness strikes them for the first time. Or when they end up in the kitchen bawling over a break-up with their first true love. Or when they turn to the stove to comfort their own kids.

Will it be the picadillo and arroz con pollo I've learned to make because they love it so? The reuben sandwiches my daughter craves at the Jewish deli? The flan she requested for her 11th birthday next month? The chili I make practically every month? The frothed warm milk with a dash of Bustelo that lured them out of bed on frigid mornings earlier this month?

It's an awesome responsibilty, this creation of tastebud memories. Whatever food they latch onto, I hope the rising steam from it opens floodgates to the past and brings them back to a happy, secure place – the place I'm cooking for them right now, even as the world outside turns cold and cruel.

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