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The Comfort Zone

by Julia Sneden

During the early '90's, a seemingly spontaneous movement developed in the world of food and food magazines. A rebellion against all that French "nouvelle cuisine" swept restaurants all over the country. All of a sudden, little shreds of haricots verts placed strategically next to tiny tournedos were out, and "comfort food" was in. Farewell, nouvelle; hello, mashed potatoes and pot roast.

Alas, mashed potatoes (or for that matter potatoes of any kind) really do ring my bell. The comfort foods I love best are without exception fattening, fattening, fattening. My mother was a wonderful cook, and a high point of any day was the call to the dinner table, but dinner wasn't the only temptation for a chubby little girl. There was homemade bread for breakfast, and homemade soups at lunch. There were nibbles of fresh apricots as my grandmothers and great aunt put up the harvest from our small orchard (87 quart jars of canned apricots means a lot of nibbles). We may have been short on sweets because of wartime restrictions on sugar, but every now and again Mother gave in and baked "hermits," those cakey little cookies. She was serious about nutrition, however, so she laced them with nuts and raisins, and probably sweetened them with a tiny sliver of maple sugar, because a cousin in Vermont used to send us five-pound blocks of it. What richness!

I can relate to Proust and his madeleines, the taste of which transported him immediately to his childhood. Saturdays at our house meant waking up deliciously late to the sound of the orange juicer and the smell of pancakes (or waffles) and maple syrup. Later in the morning came the smell of fresh bread baking, and the sound of the Metropolitan Opera on the radio (in California, the live broadcast began at 10:30 a.m.). To this day, when I smell fresh bread, I am instantly back in the home of my childhood, and the sound of opera rings in my head.

Those five senses that give us information about the world around us are truly inter-connected and incredibly potent. Scents can trigger memories of tastes or sights. A sight like an early morning fog can recall to me the sound of a foghorn in the bay, even though I no longer live near water. Holding my grandmother's silver napkin ring in my hands brings to my mind the beloved sound of her voice and laughter.

While it's possible for our sense memories to trigger pleasure-giving endorphins in our brains, they can also activate whatever is the opposite of endorphins. They sometimes revive unpleasant memories as well as happy ones: the smell of chalk dust transports me to my algebra classroom, circa 1950, where an unmourned, sarcastic teacher made my life extremely uncomfortable.

It seems to me, however, that the senses are never more powerful than when they deliver to us a message of delight by association. Sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell can lever us into a comfort zone all our own, a sudden feeling of well being, often without our ever recognizing what has put us there. If you take a second to appreciate your feelings, though, you may be amused by what triggers them.

Here are a few of my favorite paths of entry into the comfort zone:

Coffee being poured into my cup first thing in the morning, a sound eminently civilized and welcoming.
Rain on the roof at night.

The voice of a beloved friend or relative (but oddly enough, not a tape recording of my sons' voices when they were little. That one unsettles me).

The strange muffling of sounds in a redwood grove.

Laughter, as long as it's spontaneous and genuine and not unkind.

Surf, especially surf on rocks.

The San Francisco Bay Area, from an airplane: hills, brown or green depending on the season; water; bridges; long views. It is home, even after 35 years away.

Lights in a house at night, or on a dark day. 

A fire in the fireplace.  


Anything that has just been cleaned.

The small valley and woods behind my house. The neighbors call it "Possum Hollow," but my word-loving mother refers to as "a bosky dell." 

The face (hands, body) of anyone I love.

The street view of the house I have lived in for almost 30 years.

A granddaughter's hand in my hand, or her head pressing against my arm. My baby grandson's weight in my arms. 

My own bed after a trip. 

My late father's well-worn pocket knife, held in my hand, or the gold nosepiece from my great Aunt Martha's pince nez which has long since been separated from the lenses, and which I occasionally clip onto the bridge of my nose for no reason except that I have come across it in my jewelry case and want to remember her for a few moments. 

When I was small, the ribbon of a beloved blanket. Nowadays, the feel of a soft, old cotton shirt that I will wear until it shreds.

A hug from anyone I love.

Certain spices, like cinnamon or cloves, and the scent of ginger cookies in the oven.

Ocean air or high mountain air. 

Tea with lemon in it. 

A forest, especially if it's redwoods.

Yardley's English lavender soap. 

Merle Norman Sun Cream, a flesh-colored salve my grandmothers and great aunt used to smear on me when we went to the beach. Among the small items I have from my great aunt's dresser is a small, cut glass receptacle with a silver lid. When I lift the lid and sniff the empty glass, it still gives off the salty smell of Merle Norman Sun Cream.

Fleers Double Bubble Gum. To those of us who were children during the war, and had no chewing gum, the re-introduction of bubble gum was a big event. I can remember cramming my mouth full and producing bubbles the size of my head. No wonder my older brother would pretend not to know me when I was blowing and popping bubbles as we walked down the street! I quit chewing it when I hit my teens, but every now and then, I get a whiff of something like it and remember the fun.

A clean mouth. 

Miner's lettuce, a small, wild leaf that grows in the California hills. I used to nibble on it straight out of the field, and I can still recall its astringent freshness. 

Turkey: For kids reared during the war, when meat was rationed and "organ meats" and Spam filled our tables, turkey was a Big Deal. I didn't know what steak was until long after the rationing ended, but turkey was on our table at both Christmas and Thanksgiving, and to this day it tastes like a treat, even the leftovers!

Pumpkin pie, because of its association with holidays.

Anything my mother cooks. Absolutely anything, although at 93 she no longer cooks much.



And, again, that first cup of morning coffee, the one that gets the blood flowing and reminds me that I'm glad to be alive and in the comfort zone.



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