Sunday, September 7, 2008

Soul Food

No, you are not seeing things : those are candy pumpkins and . . . beans and franks. Not exactly what might come to mind when you think of manna from Heaven. And frankly (pardon the pun) not exactly gourmet, optimally nutritious, or even very beautiful . . . unless you like orange on orange. (Which actually I do--but that's another post). So why "soul food?" Good question.

Let me first explain that as a nurse I know a bit about nutrition, and that cooking (like writing) is a joy for me. I realize, given the images above, this is hard to believe. Before you panic and imagine me tossing a handful of candy pumpkins into a batch of beanie weenies and ringing the dinner bell, let me tell you what I fixed for dinner last night when we had friends over for dinner:

1) appetizer: East Indian cheese ball with wonderful ingredients like chutney, peanuts, golden raisins, green onion and coconut

2) Wild Alaskan Salmon (with dill, lime and brown sugar rub) grilled under a glorious sunset

3) corn muffins loaded with bits of roasted Hatch peppers

4) cold fresh asparagus and cherub tomatoes with Balsamic vinegar dressing

5) Melon balls (Tuscan cantaloupe and watermelon) with fresh basil, mint, simple syrup, lemon and amaretto

A wonderful chilled California chardonnay

And for dessert: lemon sorbet with a sugar-sprinkled ginger cookie

Tasty, healthful and pretty on the plate: way more colors than orange.

BUT, it's September, and that means autumn, and . . . stirs all sorts of memories for me. Crisp Northern California afternoons, the scent of woodsmoke and hot apple cider, the crunch of fallen leaves, fat bunches of chrysanthemums, grocery store bins piled high with Indian corn, fancy striped gourds and pumpkins.

Candy pumpkins too:

Brach's mellocreme pumpkins, so sweet they hurt your teeth, ridiculously cute on a gradeschool cupcake. A seasonal surprise from my mother to me, then from me to my children--harbingers of autumn. Along with a primal urge to cook hot dogs and beans. Pork and beans right from can (except for the weird white "pork" thingy--gotta toss it) , mixed with sliced onions, brown sugar, ketchup, dash of mustard, worcestshire . . . and sliced up hot dogs. Cooked in a saucepan til it bubbles. Eaten with a spoon and cornbread.

For some reason it became a tradition to make hot dogs and beans before my kids went trick-or-treating, perhaps as a protein buffer against Tootsie Roll overload. Maybe because it was an easy answer to antsy, eager little Darth Vader and Strawberry Shortcake. But more likely because Mom did that for my brothers, sister and me.

She passed away on September 15th of last year.

So now, as fall approaches (despite the heat and humidity in Texas) I'm thinking about candy pumpkins, hot dogs and beans . . . and the kind of food that does more than fill your plate or your stomach. And I fully expect my grown children (in California) will call before long to report that they've bought their first candy pumpkins, or to say they've had a sudden urge to make hot dogs and beans and can't remember if it's yellow onions or red.

Because the real "food"comes from the sharing and the warmth of the company, the love, the laughter . . . the priceless and achy-good memories.

Whether it was last night with good friends, over a dinner I had fun fussing with all day.

Or decades back when Mom opened those cans of pork and beans for her children, and then I did the same for mine.

For me, a candy pumpkin means : I love you in this new season, I miss you, I remember you . . . It's a sweet reminder that the blessing of love is our real soul food.

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