Calories of Contentment

The other night – too late for a grocery store run but with few options in the pantry – my wife and I split a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. No spicing things up, no healthy side of vegetables to lessen the guilt – just a heaping bowl of the little pasta elbows with powdered cheese. MAN did that taste good. I promptly considered a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert but caught myself just in time. Whoa, boy. Who says there’s no traveling during the pandemic?  I’ve made the journey to the land of comfort foods!

A little context before we explore the calories of contentment.  After the kids moved out of the house several years ago, our diet moved decidedly to the more healthy.  We upped our fruit and vegetable count.  We focused on meals with whole foods and fewer ingredients.  We started shopping in boutique grocery stores, discovering foods and brands we never knew existed.  Dairy and starchy carbs took the back shelf to pure proteins and Mother Nature’s bounty.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this good intention, a box of Kellogg’s Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts dropped casually into my grocery basket.  I’d heard they were pretty good and I’d never tried them before, so… why not?  Then the kids came to town for a long weekend, so we just had to load up on old family favorites like Cap’n Crunch, Good Humor Creamsicles, and Red Baron frozen pizzas.

But here’s the thing.  Our kids eat so responsibly these days, sugary cereals and snack foods no longer appeal to them.  They make flourless banana pancakes and organic food “bowls”.  They nosh on healthy proteins and Boba teas.  They spend most of their time in the kitchen instead of the drive-thru.  Those comfort foods we purchased got no love, so naturally we purchased a couple more (the Kraft Mac & Cheese and Hostess Ding Dongs).  Heck, we even embellished those choices with a countertop bowl of Brach’s caramel “Royals”, and a huge container of Peanut M&M’s in a nearby cupboard.  There’s now a junk-food roadblock in front of every attempt to eat healthy.

What is going on here?  I blame the coronavirus.  Most of our processed-food pals moved into our pantry in the last six months.  All of them were impulse buys (or “moments of weakness”, or whatever else you want to call them).  No surprise though; we’re contributing to a nationwide, if not worldwide trend during this pandemic.  The world’s biggest packaged-foods manufacturers reported sales growth of 4.3% in the first three months of the year (vs. forecasts of 3%).  Canned soup purchases rose 37%, canned meat 60%, and frozen pizza 51%.  Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs flew off the shelves.

Is one of these YOUR comfort food?

In all seriousness, a turn to comfort foods is a sign of something more complicated below the surface of our psyches.  I wish I could credit nostalgia: the sentimentality for past happier times and places, or emotional eating: the propensity to consume comfort foods in response to positive/negative stimuli.  Instead, I think we’re dealing with declinism – the belief our society is heading towards a prolonged downturn or deterioration.  We’ve been here before America, as in the Depression of the 1930s, the spread of Communism in the 1950s, or the rise of Japan’s economic powerhouse in the 1970s.  In each instance our country soldiered on better than before, but that’s not to say the short-term endurance is any fun.  And that, boys and girls, is why comfort foods maintain a “healthy” presence in grocery stores and in your pantry.

Hilton Hotels rivaled the pandemic headlines when they revealed their Doubletree chocolate-chip cookie recipe to the world last April.  Talk about your classic comfort food.  Doubletree cookies have nestled on hotel pillows since the mid-1980s; a whopping 25,000,000 in less than forty years.  “We know this is an anxious time for everyone”, was Hilton’s excuse for sharing their secret.  I baked a batch as soon as I came across the headline and now I can’t seem to stop.  A heaping bag of Doubletrees now sits in our refrigerator more often than it does not.  I could probably recite the recipe from memory, and I dream about them in my sleep.  Hilton’s got me hooked.

I still haven’t tried those Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts, the preservative-filled pastries responsible for this whole mess.  All are still paired neatly in their foil packets, sitting quietly on the shelf.  The box may even be getting a little dusty.  I figure my willpower remains intact if I leave the tarts alone until their expiration date.  Er, wait – now that I think about it – Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts never expire.  Dang it; that’s a little depressing.  I’d better have a Ding Dong to cheer myself up.

Some content sourced from the 4/24/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Comfort Foods Make a Comeback in the Coronavirus Age”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

The Life of Spice

“Mikey’s Late Night Slice” in Columbus, Ohio, offers a pizza called “Fiery Death with Hate Sausage”, topped with three of the world’s hottest peppers: Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Moruga Scorpions, and Bhut Jolokias.  You must sign a waiver before Mikey’s serves you a slice of Death, acknowledging, “you’re an idiot”, and absolving the restaurant of any responsibility for the unpredictable aftereffects.  According to one taster, “It was pretty miserable.  My eyes welled up, my nose ran, and no drink could wash away the pain.”  Sounds like my kind of heat.

Photo by “Mikey’s Late Night Slice”

It all started with the tabletop pepper shaker. Salt’s brother-of-another-color stood quietly to the side in my childhood, hoping for the same constant attention given to his savory companion. If pepper was used at all in my day, it was nothing more than an obligatory shake; a decoration of the food versus a yearning of the taste buds.

Forty-odd years later, the pepper mill has become the king of the spice rack – my go-to final flourish before deeming a meal ready-to-eat. My pepper mill is always cranked to the furthest setting to the left, so the dozens of corns fall out of the bottom virtually intact. When I refill my pepper mill and spill a few of the little guys onto the counter, I scoop them up and pop ’em into my mouth like candy.  My family has learned to pass the pepper before I even ask for it.

I blame my parents, of course (something I seem to do with increasing frequency these days). My dad peppered everything on his plate – still does – and kept shaking away until his food literally disappeared under a blanket of black. My dad was the guy at restaurants who mercilessly trapped the poor fellow who politely asked, “would anyone like ground pepper”? My dad would always add, “you can be generous…”, and several minutes of grinding ensued.  My dad also had violent (but apparently enjoyable) fits of sneezing, sometimes seven or eight in a row.  I never made the association with pepper, but now I wonder.  I can still hear him concluding a sneezing session with the word “marvelous“.

My mom, who graduated from the Emily Post School of Etiquette with honors, commanded a family dining table to rival the tightest ships.  Every placemat, utensil, plate and bowl were in perfect symmetry.  The meal began with a table grace, and concluded with “please may I be excused?” In her world, “please pass the salt” meant passing the salt along with the pepper shaker, and with two hands instead of one so you couldn’t eat at the same time. Thus, the pepper arrived at my plate whether I wanted it to or not.

Sometimes I think my hankering for pepper is borderline-addictive.  Eventually the “shaker” no longer sufficed, as the pepper only came out in little bits.  Once I discovered the “mill”, there was no going back.  A handful of turns became ten, then fifteen; my food turning as dark as my father’s.  As it turns out, pepper was my gateway spice.  In the last several years I’ve discovered “red pepper flakes”; a significant leap in heat from peppercorns.  I used to shy away from those little plastic vials they include with pizzas.  Now I ask for two or three more.

Lucky for me, pepper (and all things spicy) appears to be a healthy habit.  According to an article by Dr. Joseph Mercola – an osteopath and proponent of alternative medicine – a full ounce of pepper provides most of the manganese, Vitamin K, and potassium we need in a given day, and even a good dose of iron or fiber.  Mercola then missteps when he acknowledges “…it’s true one would not have that much pepper in a day…”  Apparently, he hasn’t met me.

Pepper is described as a “stealth antioxidant”, discourages intestinal gas from forming (no wonder my wife peppers my food), and somehow aids in the breakdown of fat cells.  Finally, black pepper has much in common with cannabis, with aroma molecules functioning as “cannabinoids”.  To be clear, we’re talking about the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids here.  Pepper isn’t playing with my brain cells (I don’t think), but it does help to reduce inflammation.

My children are destined to a life of pepper – I’m sure of it – and not because I turn my food black like my father or pass the shakers as a pair like my mother.  In high school, my daughter prepped for her team’s volleyball matches by “peppering” with another player (hitting the ball back and forth to warm the hands).  Now, she carries pepper spray in her purse.  One of my sons went to college in Waco, TX, where Dr. Pepper was invented in 1885 and vended on campus without a Coke or Pepsi in sight.  More recently, I’ve seen my children reach for the hot sauce (instead of the mild) at Mexican restaurants.  You see, it creeps up on you quietly.  Next thing you know they’ll be asking me to take them to Mikey’s Late Night Slice.