Friday, January 16, 2009


The summer I was 6 years old, I had a galloping case of scarlet fever. My parents despaired of my life. We had a neighbor called Mrs. Jessie who was fond of me, and often took care of me. She was very religious, and almost set the Catholic church ablaze with candles for all of her sickly and disaster-prone friends and relatives. She was sitting beside me when I awoke from the fever.

"Mrs. Jessie," I croaked, "would you fry me up a mess of sinkers?"

"Oh, my God," my mother said, "the poor child is delirious."

Still, Mrs. Jessie rushed to the kitchen, whipped on a print apron, fired up a large kettle of grease, and I was on the mend.

A sinker is a doughnut, of course, but has nothing in common with the wimpy product you see in modern bakeries. Mrs. Jessie's sinkers were cut from rich dough, flung into boiling lard and plucked out with tongs when they were a golden-hearted brown. They were then dredged in powdered sugar and eaten hot. There was no diddling around with paper towels after they were friend, either. Those suckers flowed with grease, and that is the way Mrs. Jessie and I liked it.

My friend Cindy once told me about her grandmother's magical Yorkshire pudding. It was not anything, she said, like the degenerate, fluffy Charmin-type Yorkshire pudding you get in restaurants these days. It was a crisply browned, warm little boulder which kept your innards company. It stayed by you. When you felt bad, when the world's boot was on your neck, you could get on the outside of a large portion of this pudding and plan your comeback.

If Cindy's grandmother sensed that she was sad, she let her eat the pudding straight off the platter, which was thick white ironstone with a lion's head on the back. This helped, too.

Your personal comfort foods are the ones that keep your boiler warm. Judith Kranz will never win a National Book Award, but she understands comfort just fine. In her novel Scruples the heroine Valentine suffers a disastrous reverse in love. She crouches in her apartment, wailing. She doesn't eat, she doesn't wash her hair. Things are rapidly going from bad to worse when she's rescued by her photographer friend Spider.

Spider holds Valentine tright--but best of all, he feeds her Campbell's tomato soup with Ritz crackers. When I got to that part, I said "Bango!", which is what the sportscaster Eddie Doucette used to say when somebody made a basket. Tomato soup (made with milk, of course) and Ritz crackers are good for what ails you. Something about round crackers makes me feel better right away, while the bristly right angles of Triscuits seem harsh and sad.

Ice cream, too, has been close to my heart ever since the Christmas when I was 8. I had large juicy chickenpox all over me, and fury in my heart. I'd miss everything. I hated everybody. It was so unfair.

Then my father came home from work and showed me what he'd bought. It was especially for me, mint ice cream made with a colored Christmas tree design in the middle. He made me a sundae with sprinkles on top. He treated me with a beautiful gentleness all evening. And I healed.

The last memory is bittersweet. On a winter morning long ago I stood in a snowbank, in a blizzard, breathless with pain. I was incapacitated by grief, unable to step from the drift to the sidewalk. I'd just had the kind of conversation, with an ex-fiance, that shouldn't happen to a dog. You would think that the realization that your lost man is not only a selfish rotter but an utter fool would make you stop wanting him. You would think that. But for a 20-year-old, it's not so.

Anyhow, my hands were in my pockets because I'd rushed romantically into the blizzard without gloves. I was freezing, but after awhile I became aware of an object in one of the pockets. I pulled it out and stared at it. It was a chocolate bar in a brown wrapper. Nothing fancy, but the chocolate bar of my childhood, the kind my mother always bought.

With stiff fingers I fumbled the wrapping off and put the chocolate in my mouth. There followed one of the lodestar sensory experiences of my life. The dark, sweet, velvety stuff melted on my tongue, while a fine mist of snow blew against my face. Tears, snow and chocolate blended. After a few minutes I felt, not exactly better, but stronger. I was able to step out of the snowbank, and go home.