Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Comfort Food

Sometimes, when the world is too much with you, the only way to crawl out of it is to cook.

This fall was filled with the blues. Hurricane Sandy made a direct hit on my county, and while I didn't lose my home or even suffer any signficant damage, I was witness to a lot of sadness. All of us lost power for the better part of a week. I never experienced a natural disaster like this, and even just losing power spooked me-- the silence, except for the buzzing of gas powered generators-- rang in my ears. I'd pick up branches with my son and watch people just sort of wandering around. Gas was scarce, and on the second day of the blackout, our local grocery store had teenage cashiers helping customers get nonperishable food through suddenly impossibly tall, narrow grocery aisles, only a weak flashlight to guide us. We bought some soup and I had visions of heating it up on our grill's side burner so that it was boiling hot-- did I mention it was pretty damn cold? Well, I am here to tell you, before a hurricane comes, check your damn propane. There is nothing quite as soul-sucking as huddling over a bowl of tepid soup on the third day of a blackout. 

There are other, more serious losses, but I was, as I said, only a witness to them. One of my closest friends lost her home-- she lives in an area near Barnegat Bay that completely flooded over, and since she lives in a ranch, everything was, literally, washed out. I will never forget sitting in my car (since we had a charger for our phones in there, plus, it had heat, we spent a lot of time in our cars), finally getting through to her-- cell phone reception was terrible the week after the storm-- and hearing my tough, funny friend tell me her kids' toys were floating through the house, her voice-- and then mine-breaking into sobs. My boss and his family, which includes four young kids, lost their home, too.

All of the places that have created blissful childhood memories for my five year old son-- Seaside, Spring Lake, Point Pleasant, local parks, Asbury Park's boardwalk-- suffered millions of dollars' worth of damage. It is amazing how the sea can twist giant structures into baroque knots, how it can remove all traces of boardwalks, how it can lift houses and boats and place them in completely random, terribly wrong, locations. There is no way, even months later, to act as if everything is normal.

But I have come to recognize that my adopted home state is nothing if not plucky. Seaside has already done an amazing amount of repair work, as have most of the other boardwalk towns I know and love. My friend refuses to give into despair and is becoming increasingly involved in her town's council meetings-- she demands to know when Barnegat Bay will be dredged, when homeowners will get actual, concrete information from FEMA as well as their local governments on when and how they can rebuild. 

When I think about all this, I realize that the best way to deal with these upheavals is to be with the ones you love and, well, cook. I baked about five billion cookies for my friend and my boss's families, because I didn't know what else to do. Even though it was highly impractical, I baked with all the feelings I had-- helplessness, love, sadness, hope-- and it felt really good. It felt good to make cookies loaded with spices, and to think about my boss's wife eating one after putting the kids to bed in their hotel. It felt good to make chocolate chip cookies with toasted walnuts and know that my friend's kids and her husband, who, for a skinny guy, can sock it away, were going to inhale them in about half an hour.

It felt good to see that in the midst of all the devastation wrought by Sandy, my favorite pizza place, Maruca's, in Seaside, was fine-- and to know that even if it takes a year, I will be there in the cooling light of an early summer night with my family and my friend's family, demanding that my husband buy one of their enormous pizzas to put in our car (and let me tell you, carrying one of those goddam things up and down the boardwalk, especially if you're holding various hideous stuffed animals your kid has won, is no picnic) and freeze for later. People are resilient, and there is nothing more healing than good food-- and the memories food carries.