Comfort Food

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We moderns live in our heads. As a child, I watched my father, a Romanian peasant, drink hot tea with rum from an old-fashioned diner cup. I was fascinated by how my father’s fingers thick from hard work wrapped around the heavy cup with the handle opposite his hand. The cup and fingers formed a whole. My father lived in the world, not in his head with a running commentary on everything, and that is the reason excellent food was an essential part of his life, and by living with him part of mine. In times of financial uncertainty and family discord, we always turn to outstanding Romanian dishes and good booze.

I assume in the Covid-19 Experiment you have picked the equivalent of my Jack Daniel’s. In Eastern Europe, chicken paprikash is comfort food. Here is my recipe. You may want to make two of my go-to comfort foods from the South. 

For a fascinating history of Black cooking in Virginia, see Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking. Ms. Lewis’ grandfather, immediately after the Civil War ended, bought with several other former slaves part of a plantation about twenty miles from Charlottesville, Virginia. The land once worked under the whip became Freetown. The Taste of Country Cooking lays out traditional Black cooking according to the seasons of the year. The recipes are complicated and illustrate that a people forced to the edge of nothingness take what is available and make it superb, whether it is food or music. We humans cannot live without meaning in our lives and rich experience, although Modernity attempts to give us the trivial and shallow, where a quarter pounder with cheese replaces an aged New York strip steak and Justin Bieber eclipses Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.



1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal Note: The best cornmeal is Bob’ Red Mill Coarse Ground Cornmeal, available at Whole Foods and Amazon; also use this for polenta.

¼ cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

2 eggs


1 cup buttermilk Note: If possible, do not buy the cheap processed buttermilk sold at most grocery stores.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

  1. Combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
  2. In another bowl, mix eggs, buttermilk, and melted butter. Add to dry ingredients and stir until all ingredients are just blended. Take care not to overmix.
  3. Heat a 9-inch heavy skillet on the stove, add 1 tablespoon bacon fat (saved from when you fry bacon), swirl melted fat around in the skillet to coat the sides, pour batter into skillet, smooth out slightly if needed. If you do not have bacon fat, try butter, but do not brown the butter.
  4. Bake in preheated 400º oven for 25 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Oven Barbecued Ribs

For two people, purchase a slab of St. Louis style pork ribs, not baby back ribs. The fad for baby back ribs was a white conspiracy to attack soul food.

Pat ribs dry, apply the dry rub to both sides, wrap in plastic wrap, and place in refrigerator overnight, or up to three days. Heat oven to 300 degrees, place ribs, uncut, on a wide-lipped baking sheet, lined with aluminum foil. If the rack of ribs does not fit, cut into two pieces. Cook for two hours; if you want the ribs to fall off the bones bake another 30 to 45 minutes but baste with rendered fat from the baking sheet. In the Romanian tradition, the ribs are served without any BBQ sauce, but in America the ribs are often served with BBQ; I find Stubbs is good and is available at all supermarkets.

In Virginia, as in many places of the South, ribs are baked without a rub and served with various BBQ sauces. I, clearly, am not a fan of this tradition.

I always serve ribs with coleslaw and black beans.

Dry Rub

3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) smoked paprika; available at Trader Joe’s and probably most supermarkets.

4 tablespoons ground mild chili powder; if you want more heat, add a tiny amount of cayenne pepper.

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) ground black pepper                  

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) salt                                        

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) sugar

2 tablespoons Mexican Oregano

2 tablespoons ground cumin

Half of this recipe will be more than enough from a slab of ribs. The dry rub keeps for months in a sealed glass container.

Coleslaw (From Cooks Illustrated)

A food processer makes the preparation of coleslaw exceptional easy.

½ small head green cabbage, outer leaves removed, cored, and thinly sliced (use a food processor)

1 small sweet onion, minced (use the small blade of a food processor)

3 large carrots, peeled and shredded (again use a food processor)

½ cup mayonnaise (I use Hain Safflower Mayonnaise)

2 tablespoons rice vinegar; rice vinegar is essential for this coleslaw. I use Marukan Rice Vinegar.

Mix the sliced cabbage and shredded carrot in a large bowl, add ½ teaspoon salt, mix well. In a small bowl, combine minced onion, mayonnaise, rice vinegar, and plenty, I mean plenty, of freshly grated pepper. Just before serving, mix all ingredients together, or mix all ingredients together and store in the refrigerator.


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