Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Books as comfort food

When under stress, I return to the sure safety of old favorites. Grilled cheese sandwiches, blueberry muffins. Peanut butter cookies, with pressed fork patterns on the tops. Really good scrambled eggs. And this morning, Laurie Colwin's book of essays, Home Cooking (Knopf 1988). Yesterday, a short story collection from Sarah Orne Jewett. Last week, a few Georgette Heyer novels. Before that, a visit with Louise Andrews Kent and her Mrs. Appleyard. All re-reads five times over, of the loved and the known - they never fail to bring a measure of relief, and a righting of a temporarily wavering compass.

Sarah Orne Jewett, in particular. Her prose is steeped with all things Maine, yet she still manages to take me away completely. And not just into a far past. As I've said before, not much happens in her stories, at least on the surface. They contain only a few characters, perhaps an incident or two on which all things turn, much quiet country description, but also a fresh immediacy and a precise noticing of human emotion that never seems to change, despite the passing of a century or two. One of the best stories in this particular collection (The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, Anchor 1989, the softcover with the perfect detail of a Fairfield Porter painting on the cover) is Martha's Lady, which opens thusly:

"One day, many years ago, the old Judge Pyne house wore an unwonted look of gayety and youthfulness. The high-fenced green garden was bright with June flowers. Under the elms in the large shady front yard you might see some chairs placed near together, as they often used to be when the family were all at home and life was going on gayly with eager talk and pleasure-making; when the elder judge, the grandfather, used to quote that great author, Dr. Johnson, and say to his girls, 'Be brisk, be splendid, and be public.'" (p.244)

How could you not want to read on, after that? I defy anyone to read this story and not cry at the end, from sadness and joy in equal amounts together. Anyone with a tender heart, that is (which must be all of us, secretly, mustn't it?). Her stories are perfect aides to contemplation of one's good fortune in modern life, no matter what is happening. I always come away from her words feeling like a righted ship. I could say the same for any of my comforts, in their own ways.

I would love to hear what others consider their favorite comfort foods, either of the readable or the merely edible varieties... what do you turn to and re-turn to? I know, here I am talking about food again, but it can't be helped. The house still carries the scent of those peanut butter cookies I made a few hours ago.

Warm corn bread with butter and molasses has saved my day many times.
Sarah Orne Jewett is a jewel. I believe that she is not read enough. She is a master of the short story.
But my favorite read when I need to reduce stress is an essay by Albert Camus titled "Return To Tipasa".
Mmm, corn bread. I make it in a cast iron skillet. And Camus, most interesting. I see I will have to track this essay down.

I have an unscientific theory about escapist literature: it doesn't actually help you escape from anything at all, rather it reminds you of the existence of your essential self, perhaps at a time when you need such a thing the most.

Unscientific, as I say. I also just like to get away. Thanks for your comment, Lincoln.
Lovely post! On a rainy and potentially sad day, I read Nancy Mitford and keep a hot pot of tea, McVities digestives, and lemon curd near my reading chair.
Hello and thanks, Anon. In "Home Cooking" Laurie Colwin mentions something she loved, McVittie's Scotch Pancakes, which she said came in little packages of six. She would slather them with double cream. Then devour them.

Lemon curd... add "Love in a Cold Climate" and you have the best ingredients of one recipe for happiness, surely.
What do I "return" to ?
horse books, natural history -
( like: Gerald Durrell-)
Spiritual and occasionally a good mystery.
I love essays about poetry, writing.
Some Biography, memoirs.
Izzy, I too love Gerald Durrell (his Corfu books in particular influenced me profoundly)... also diaries, so I can find out what other people were *really* thinking. Thanks for stopping by.
Hi, Sarah: Speaking of grilled cheese sandwiches, at the Bangor airport recently, I was put off by the $4.49 price tag on a small box of Cheez-its in the gift shop, so I wandered across the terminal to the little diner. There, I got a grilled Swiss cheese on 12 grain bread, huge and delicious, for $2.49! I was especially glad I had bought it 3.5 hours later, when my flight from Bangor to Detroit was still sitting on the tarmac with mechanical problems. Meanwhile, see you sometime this summer.
Hi Tom - good to hear from you... if you are over near the airport in Bangor again, I recommend Nicky's Diner, a real greasy spoon but hey, it's good! Hope to see you at a book sale one of these days. Do you have your bookshop yet? Keep me posted.
Hi Sarah
Just rediscovering your wonderful blog.
Comfort food: guacamole & chips, or better yet smashed avocado on a saltine with a dash of salt & lemon juice.
Comfort reads: any of John Steinbeck's short stories about the agricultural valleys of California.
You can tell where I grew up from these comments.
Nice, George, thank you for checking in! Okay, I will share a secret with you - I also love avocado, and in fact I invented one of the world's best sandwiches just last week. (What we come up with when starving and staring at the contents of the fridge in despair...) I had a ripe avocado on the counter, and some brie and leftover bbq roast chicken in the fridge, so I sliced it all up and put it on bread with a bit of mayo. Then fried the sandwich in a pan until the brie melted. Dear lord, it was so fine, I'm still thinking about it.

And here I was all high-falutin' recently about not talking about food all the time. Sigh.
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