Monday, September 14, 2009

Growing Up: Tuna Fish and Noodles

Chefs, foodies, and everyday eaters call it the same thing: comfort food. The restaurants you go to time and time again, ordering the "standby" dish. The "home meal": the dinner your mother and/or father prepare(s) that everyone believes is the best meal. The hearty chili on a winter Sunday, with football playing in the background. The chips and queso at a family gathering, the steak and potatoes found on every farmer's dinner plate. Sweet corn at a concession stand.

The above examples were my comfort food growing up. My neighbors would collect a few watermelons, and I would come over and sneak away a slice or two. I would cross 13th St. to the Dairy Queen and order a blizzard every Sunday. (Later, it was called the Dairy King, and blizzards were called tornadoes. They sure tasted the same, though.) Every Fourth of July, the Jaycees would make the Sloppy Joe that everyone in town would rush to after the parade.

My mother may argue a little, but her cooking abilities are not renowned. She had a few reliable dishes, though. She made killer lasagna, a roast beef that commonly lacked flavor, meatloaf that sent me to my bedroom in fear, runzas I would probably commit crimes to eat, and tuna fish and noodles. Mom loves tuna fish and noodles. She made it all the time, probably weekly. The dish would last for days, too, because so much of it was made. I am not a fan of leftovers to begin with, so this was a dish that twisted the knife well after the meal was cooked.

I am not a fan of the dish, personally. Tuna really doesn't do it for me, especially in canned form. I like noodles, but not smothered in generic cream of mushroom sauce. The peas were the icing on the gag-worthy cake, my absolute least favorite vegetable. This is not a dish I looked forward to.

And yet... and yet...

I would still call it comfort food. I recently had another helping or five of tuna fish this summer during the WAF conference in Omaha. No, it didn't taste any better, but it brought back a flood of memories of childhood dinners.

The kitchen table was white with a wooden edge. It was perfectly circular. My father sat on the north side (view of the kitchen television), my mother sat on the south side (no interest in TV while eating), my brother sat on the west side (a view of Main St.), and I sat on the east side (a view of the clock, which always seemed to stop ticking whenever I ate tuna fish and noodles).

Dinner conversations were of the "how was your day?" variety, but they would commonly develop into something a little more entertaining. Usually, I would discuss the latest method of getting my teacher's unwanted attention, Mom would discuss the latest speeding ticket victim, and Dad would discuss how locating phone cables underground was a fascinating exercise. And, whenever my brother was there, he talked at the expense of everyone else. That was OK; he is by far the best storyteller in the family.

These conversations almost predictably reached a snag. "Oh, Chad!" was a common phrase at dinner, often heard after mentioning the words "lost my lunch money". Snoring was commonly audible when Dad was talking about a cable cut. Everyone would lean over toward Mom when a particularly notable Tekamah resident was in court because of a not-so-special child drinking and doing something else. Whatever the situation, someone would get annoyed, and the rest of us would be entertained.

Mostly, dinners were a chance for all of us to stay quiet. Sometimes, uncomfortable silences at the table occurred, but mostly, it gave us a chance simply to rest and eat our stresses away. Those are the dinners I remember most fondly.

When eating tuna fish and noodles for dinner (three nights in a row) during my stay in Nebraska earlier this summer, Mom and I said little and just ate our little worries away once again. It was a good meal. Comfort food, even if there were peas on it.