September 19, 2008

Appetite That’s Not so Artful

By Ken Newton

Everybody knows about comfort food. I get confused when they talk about comfit food.

Where I grew up and when I grew up, most things were fried. By the time I got out of high school, 30 percent of my bloodstream was Crisco.

At my house, we even had some fried vegetables. That was the way of things.

Also at my house, we never questioned the preparation methods. If I had known to raise the issue of heart healthiness, my dad would have asked me to find his pack of Winstons and my mom would have asked how I liked the taste of nothing.

I remember being well fed and loyal to what was placed on our table. No boy of Southern lineage believes there is fried chicken better than that prepared in his mother's skillet.

And that goes for the establishment of local renown in my small town, Lambert's, which was plenty good long before it became a star of interstate billboards and a darling of food channels.

When I was a kid, Lambert's was a diner barely large enough to be called modest. With its tables so closely placed and decorum barely a concern, waitresses began tossing extra bread helpings to customers rather than squeezing past the furniture.

From that, a bijillion rolls were launched. Now, bus tours head there from the hinterlands for the experience and the macaroni-and- tomatoes "pass arounds."

The food is not much different from what I ate growing up, food in which I find comfort. To be clear, that's not comfit.

At my home now, I get a subscription to bon appetit, a Christmas gift from my sister. It's one of those magazines I enjoy without fully understanding, sort of like a science digest but with more mouth-watering pictures.

My occasional confusion stems from the magazine operating in a different arena than my own. My appetites are more utilitarian than artful, more constructed of cultural inertia than culinary experimentation.

It should not be so intimidating. To be honest, isn't cassoulet just a more sophisticated form of beanie-weinies?

My appreciation runs to anyone who needs to celebrate their taste buds with pomegranate liqueur. But my kitchen skills operate on a single and simple channel, pliable when it comes to something new but unequal to cuisine with many moving parts.

I might try to impress guests by serving prosciutto and brie sandwiches. I'm not such a rube that I don't know this is just a ham- and-cheese on designer bread.

But the recipe calls for rosemary fig confit, an amalgam of spices and foreign substances that makes a man wish for a dollop of mayonnaise. The confit might be heavenly, but why take chances?

In Kansas City last week, those gathered for the International Food Aid Conference met to discuss the challenges of feeding a planet. Drought, crop diseases, high commodity and fuel prices and increasing world demand have created a crisis for these assistance groups.

One international food agency estimated the number of people under "severe stress" because of the situation at 100 million.

It should make people glad to eat whatever is in front of them. In human terms, though, that's no real comfort.

Ken Newton's column

runs on Sundays and Tuesdays.

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