ROBERT ST. JOHN: Comfort food and beautiful noise

By Robert St. John

This is the best time of year for comfort food. After all of the leaves have fallen there is a small window of opportunity where one can share a quiet, peaceful and hearty one-pot meal beside a crackling fire.
To me, all of the best comfort foods are wholesome one-pot meals. They don’t require too much prep time and should be easy to clean up afterwards. Pot Roast might be the king of comfort foods. Gumbo should probably hold that title in this part of the world, but the prep work involved in making a true, rich-stock, dark-roux gumbo knocks it out of the running.
Vegetable beef soup is a classic comfort food, though it might be more popular up North than down here. Chicken and dumplings, on the other hand, would be more of a Southern comfort food.
In my house there is much debate over comfort food. My wife’s ultimate comfort food is potato soup. I opt for chicken potpie. My two children side with my wife on the issue, which is fine, because there is always extra chicken potpie left over for me.
The term comfort food has been in use only since 1977, but recently, the expression might have been redefined for the ages. One recent morning my wife began making potato soup for an army – a small dwarf-like army, but an army nonetheless.
Beginning in the late afternoon, while I was watching the NFL Playoffs, SUVs began pulling through the driveway and dropping off children. By early evening my house was filled with 10 13-year-old girls and four 9-year-old boys who were all there for a spend-the-night party with my son and daughter.
They went through two gallons of potato soup and four king cakes. It was shortly after the king cakes, and the arrival of two more 13-year-olds – boys this time – that people started getting thrown into the pool. Once they dried off, and warmed up, the dancing began. Around 10 p.m. the two older boys went home and the teenage girls began giving the 9-year-old boys dance lessons.
At 10:30, the girls broke into my supply of 5-Hour Energy Drinks, and I went to bed, leaving my wife and our friend Jessica to police the troops.
This was comfort food on steroids. There was no crackling fire, no wool blankets and no extra portions of chicken potpie. There was a lot of giggling, squealing, screaming, running and laughing.
Before I went to sleep, I lay in my bed listening to the sounds of the house. Kids having fun is truly a beautiful noise. I know it will be gone soon, so I listened with more intent. Before long they’ll be driving, and the giggling will turn into whispering, and boyfriends will replace best girl friends, and Sunday night potato soup will be replaced by date nights and formals.
Webster defines comfort food as, “Food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” For me, potato soup will forevermore remind me of kids having fun.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.