4 min

Comfort food

Ginger ale makes you feel better

Credit: Xtra West files

The guy in the video store looked like he had shrunk; his skin hung over his skeleton. He sniffed, miserable, and half-tried not to cough on my video or my change. He was wearing his sickness, like a lead poncho.

“You okay, man?” I asked, shaking my own head to answer so he didn’t have to. “You need ginger ale?”

He crossed his brows over red-rimmed eyes. “Ginger ale?” he snorted. Why would I drink ginger ale? I’m sick, I’ve got the cold.”

His mother had obviously never introduced him to the magical healing powers of ginger ale, the poor dear. Maybe he only had a father, but still, his dad should have picked it up from his mother. He must be an orphan, I thought, feeling even sorrier for him. All alone, working, sick, and without parents or ginger ale. Makes a person realize how lucky they really are, I thought, walking with my collar up and my fists in my pockets, my video steaming under my arm inside my winter coat.

I have always maintained that January in Vancouver curls my toes in fear more than the bitterest Yukon blizzard ever could. I remember blissfully playing outside as a kid up north, in minus 32 degrees Celsius, toasty and hatless. My toque and scarf I had stashed earlier in the mailbox at the end of our driveway so I could put them on while going back into the house, just to keep my mom off my case. Ask any fresh-faced prairie girl or northern tomboy; we all say the same thing for a reason. It’s a dry cold back home, weather you can dress for.

Not this wet snow and damp wind, this melt and freeze, this devil’s mix that wraps its moldy fingers around your bones and squeezes the heat out right from the middle of you.

Comfort food weather, and luckily I was already prepared.

Everyone has their own idea of comfort food; it is for sure a cultural thing. I’m from simple stock, born and raised in a place where fresh vegetables had to travel four days by truck for a good part of the year; so most of my culinary comfort comes via a can opener. Lonely? Cold? Tired? Take one package of pork chops out of the deep freeze; thaw on counter while at work all day. Place in shallow oven pan. Add one can of Campbell’s mushroom soup, and half a can of water. Make some rice.

Do not invite vegetarian girlfriend for dinner, or mention to most of your friends what you are cooking. Your neighbour who grew up in the commune will not understand, but your buddy from Flin-Flon or Yellowknife will be right over with a six-pack of Extra Old Stock.

You can add sliced mushrooms and steam some broccoli as a side dish if you want to get fancy with it, but the true beauty of this dish lies in its adherence to tradition. Salt and pepper to taste. Best served at 6:30 while watching Jeopardy or the news.

If you watch the news, you have to interject over a mouthful of food, saying things like: “Have they all gone crazy? See, what I mean, what happens when you put too many rats in one cage?” or, “They’re all most likely hopped up on speed.” Or, “For the love of Christ, look who’s on the TV, quick, get your sister on the phone.”

Halfway through the news, turn it to the hockey game.

For dessert, you can follow this meal up perfectly with Neapolitan ice cream, making sure to leave the strawberry stripe still in the bucket.

My mom worked a lot, and was afraid to take days off when my little sister or I were sick, but she used to do this thing for us that I still remember fondly. If I had the flu or a cold or something, when I dragged my ass downstairs wrapped in a comforter, I would find a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup sitting unopened in a saucepan on the counter. Beside these would be a can opener and a soupspoon, and directly to their right would be a carton of orange juice and a big glass. No matter how late or early I got up, this was exactly when the phone would ring.

“Did you find the soup?” she would ask.

“Thanks mom.”

“Did you find the juice?”

“Sure did.”

“I’ll come home straight after work with some ginger ale. Make sure you stay warm.”

This was a point on which my parents disagreed. My mom would let us turn the heat up a bit when someone in the house was sick, whereas my father seemed convinced that having a furnace in the first place made a person weak, and thus prone to illness.

“Jesus,” he’d pant on his way in the door. “It’s like a fuckin’ sauna in here. What are we now, growing tomatoes?”

“The girls have a cold, Don, so I let them turn the thermostat up a little.”

“I bet they’re sick,” he’d sneer, “with a tropical flu. I feel sick already.”

Comfort food for my Dad was what he called “breakfast for dinner.” Bacon and eggs with hash browns, or French toast.

I recently surveyed a few friends, and asked them what comfort food meant to them. Here are the results, in no particular order: macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes (with or without gravy), Minute rice, rice pudding, Lipton chicken noodle soup in a box, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup in a can, canned apple juice, canned peas, canned mandarin oranges, fish sticks with bake-in-the-oven french fries, hot chocolate, popcorn, and pancakes.

Apparently, starch and/or sugar equal sanctuary, and butter makes you feel better. Figures, eh? What makes you feel good isn’t all that good for you.

Except, of course, for ginger ale.