The Independent

Comfort food

In fitness and health circles, food is fuel, and the aim is to provide the body the best fuel you can, and largely staying away from junk food and sugar. In life, however, food is complex, rife with emotional associations and wrapped up in memory.

My large extended family lost our patriarch last week, and relatives flocked to New Mexico from around the country to mourn his passing and celebrate his life. This of course meant food. Lots of food.

My uncle Paul Mascareñas was the oldest of 12 children born in Rio Lucio, New Mexico, between Española and Taos. My mom and my aunts prepared food for the reception after the funeral: posole, red chile, green chile, beans, tortillas, rounded off with salad and fruit, and many desserts. That included biscochitos and my grandmother’s famous prune pie.

Each dish was prepared carefully, the old way, like my grandmother would have done. Each dessert just so, and much conversation was heard about just how she used to do it. It matters in those moments that the dish have that taste of home, of childhood, of nostalgia.

I prepared tortillas, careful to do it just the way my grandmother liked them, made with lard, and rolled out thick. I had persuaded her many years ago to give up white flour for whole wheat, my argument being that they taste better in addition to being a healthier choice. I thought of her, and her kitchen, as I rolled them out.

Then too, the act of sitting around tables together, dozens of us—cousins who haven’t seen each other in years, aunts and uncles galore, and everybody trying to catch up with the number of kids and grandkids we all have now. That act of breaking bread together is comforting, primal and sacred. Give us this day our daily bread.

We caught up with each other as we ate my uncle’s favorite dishes. He had joined the Army, and returned in the 60s with a German wife, Gisela. She learned to prepare the staples of northern New Mexico as expertly as any of my aunts. And she in turn introduced us to German recipes. The ones that made the biggest impression on me as a child were cookies. I’d be willing to bet that her children feel the same way about those German cookies that I do about the prune pie. Comforted by its familiarity.

The temptation to overeat at gatherings like those—and I’ve been to two in the past few days—is pretty intense, and I definitely overate, especially when it came to desserts. With a lot of my inner work about comfort eating or emotional eating, I’m still at a stage of learning my triggers and what I reach for. Easy. I reach for sugar when I’m stressed out or upset. And in this case the trigger was no mystery.

On the up side, I also found common ground with those of my cousins who are, like me, working towards health and fitness. We talked about exercise and diet, and comfort foods, too.

I feel life is about seeking balance, and I wanted that taste of my childhood as much as anybody this weekend. I wanted to remember the days, when my uncle was young, and we played in the river with our cousins, coming back to my grandmother’s house to eat the same foods we just shared, before getting chased outside again, where we’d run up the mountain, or back down to the river, to sit in the shade and tell secrets.

Do you struggle with emotional eating? What are your strategies to tame it? You can reach me at 505-286-1212 or leota@lobo.net. Or join the conversation in my Facebook group, “I’m Losing It!”