“Whatever…the future’s not here yet. I try not to think about tomorrow or yesterday. Tomorrow’s a long time away and yesterday is long gone. There are only about 330 todays left here. Only when I return will my life move on like normal people’s.”
- C, February 26, 2005
“Sure. I guess you could write in your blogger if you want. You have to call me SGT Slacker though (SGT Rock is taken). Just kidding, C is fine.”
- C, March 19, 2005
When Moira posted a contest with the motif of Comfort Food, I knew there were many foods I could write about. At one point, I thought about my mother’s simple, wonderful homemade applesauce, which I’ve since morphed into a something-more-sophisticated version. I also considered my favorite cornbread recipe, my love of which has roots in a family Sunday morning breakfast tradition. And I almost settled on something, anything chocolate because of the fact that my adoration of chocolate has bonded me to my father (another unrepentant cacao fiend) since I was a child. All of these had merit, and have stories of comfort attached to them. No doubt they are stories I will tell at some point. But for now I decided to write about what it means to use a special food to comfort another – in particular, someone far away from their home and loved ones, someone in great need.
I looked at the specs for this contest. Moira, it's true, did say to write about one of your own comfort foods. But I figured I could write about something that comforts me and which, for that very reason, I decided to send to someone else as a form of comfort. After all, who isn’t comforted by cookies? You see, I have this cookie that I make. It’s just a kitchen-sink sort of oatmeal cookie, but it’s G’s absolute favorite. It’s my brother’s fave too. And I love them as well. Of all the cookies I make, this is the one that I turn to when I want something that speaks to the idea of “home”. It’s not a complex or fancy cookie with highbrow ingredients – not a glacéed citron florentine or a multi-bean espresso bar, but an old-fashioned cookie with lumps, bumps, chunks and crunch. I’m talking about the kind of cookie you’d give to a child with a glass of milk after school. The sort of cookie you’d make to put in a tin and bring as a guest-gift for a country-house weekend in the fall. The cookie you’d send overseas, to a soldier at war.
The other morning I was listening to National Public Radio, as I usually am upon awakening. There was a piece about a woman whose husband is a soldier on a tour of duty in Iraq, which circumstance had reduced her and her children to living in their car. She had appealed to an agency that helps indigent families of soldiers, but with the stipulation that she would only accept help if they didn’t tell “her soldier”. She didn’t want him to know because it would cause him to worry about them, distracting him and putting him at greater risk while in harm’s way. The story was, of course, heart-rending in and of itself -- aside from the question of whether or not those who are being sent overseas have their needs taken care of, both at war and here at home.
The agency mentioned in the piece kept referring to “your soldier”. “Your soldier” is the person that you know in the war, regardless of their relationship to you: child, spouse, sibling, parent or friend. And as I listened, I thought, as I have each day since the end of November, about C – "my soldier”.
I work for an educational development institute that’s part of a large university. Within our own organization, we have a number of sub-groups. There are math consultants, writing and literacy specialists, after-school practitioners, and those who work in adult education. There are directors of programs, co-directors and associate directors. We also have a sizeable support staff, with program assistants, a receptionist, a bookkeeper, and numerous others. It’s a pretty friendly place – we chat on occasion, and know a fair amount about each other. I know about E’s son’s teaching job, and P’s daughters. V and I used to commiserate about boyfriend problems. We have cakes at birthdays and send each other flowers for hospitalizations and gifts for weddings and babies. But one person I never felt I knew very well was C – until now. C had been on the support staff for as long or longer than I’ve been at the institute, which is seven years. He made an enormous volume of photocopies, moved and fixed equipment, and generally did a bit of just about everything. A quiet person, pretty reserved – that was how I thought of him. He often helped me out of a pinch with copies that I needed for a class at the last minute, or took a look at my printer when it wasn’t working. I knew that C had been in ROTC and was in the National Guard – and I, like some others, avoided talking about politics with him. This was a kind of misplaced delicacy on my part, I now think – not wanting to offend him with my anti-war sensibilities, I shied away from engaging C in a discussion where I could really listen to him and understand how he feels. Which, as it turns out, may not be as far removed from my own feelings as I had assumed. Clearly I needed a reminder that someone’s uniform is not necessarily an indicator of his or her inner life.
A few months ago, C was called up and after a period of training, shipped out, first to Kuwait, and then to Iraq. It was then that all of us at the institute realized what a family we were. Differences of opinion suddenly made no difference. We were united in one purpose – to support C in any way we could through the ordeal he would be undergoing for the next 18 months to 3 years (the projected possible length of his tour of duty). We made a party and pooled together for a gift. I hugged C for the first time ever when I said goodbye, tears in my eyes, admonishing him to please take care of himself, to please come back home to all of us.
Since then we’ve written, emailed, sent packages. We’ve developed a ritual – whenever anyone gets a letter or card from C, it’s photocopied and put in everyone’s mailbox so that we can all share it. Sometimes we forward his emails around as well. And he writes to us a lot, which is our “comfort food” these days. We’ve discovered that C is a wonderful writer – funny and brash and truthful and soulful. In some ways, he’s far more present for me now than he was as a reserved and somewhat shy young man in the office. And I feel the pain of this, and want to know him in person as I now do through his letters.
So next month it’s my turn to send out a package. I’ve tried to find out what he might like. P told me that he likes chocolate – but then E told me that he doesn’t, and that in fact he doesn’t much like sweets at all. So I emailed to ask him myself, and he told me that he’d been craving Swedish Fish, and that chocolate was a big premium item in the desert, since it melts so quickly – and that he likes the surprise of opening a package and NOT knowing what’s in it. I’m collecting some sci-fi books, since I know he likes those – and DVDs apparently are like gold and currency, much shared and traded, so I’m trying to search some good ones out in that arena as well. And I bought some bags of Swedish Fish already, and I figure I’ll include some tins of nuts, since I’m always worried about everyone’s protein intake. This is especially true when people are eating institutional food. Sometimes the carbs are the only thing edible on the plate – or the metal tray, as the case may be.
And I’ll send these cookies. Knowing C, I figure that even if he’s not a big cookie eater, he’ll share them around with his unit. It's up to him -- he can eat them, or share them, or both, as he will. I hope they will be comfort food. To me they are cookies that sing of home, anyone’s home: hearty and crunchy with oatmeal, browned butter and brown sugar, nuts, chocolate and dried fruit. Heck, they’re practically a meal in a cookie. I know that as I make them, I’ll be guilty of magical thinking. I’ll make these cookies as a mantra, a talisman, a prayer to bring C home unharmed. Come home, C, come home to your family, your friends and co-workers – your job is waiting for you if you want it. We all make our own photocopies these days. Come home all of you -- all you young and old men and women who are far from your homes in this war -- and all of you who are fighting a war on your own turf and are not so far from home, but still just want to be able to go there. May you all enter your houses, safely and healthily and soon, and sit at tables with your loved ones, eating your favorite cookies and your favorite comfort foods, drinking in the love and life and warmth of home, wherever that may be and whoever that may mean.
Kitchen Sink Oatmeal Cookies
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
1 cup firmly packed dark muscovado or brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups oatmeal
1 cup toasted slivered almonds
1 cup toasted, coarsely chopped walnuts
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips
3/4 cup dried tart cherries
3/4 cup golden raisins
(You can change, substitute or leave out any of the fruits, nuts and chocolate. This particular combination, however, has enjoyed universal popularity with everyone I know, even those who claim to hate one or the other of these elements.)
Heat oven to 350°F. Put the nuts, fruits and chips in a bowl, toss with a tablespoon or two of the flour, and set aside. Place the butter in a saucepan, and melt it over low heat. Continue cooking it, watching carefully, until the liquid butter has turned a rich light brown and gives off a nutty smell. If this “beurre noisette” burns, you must throw it away and begin over again, since it will give food an acrid and terrible flavor. Let the butter cool; beat in both sugars. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, and salt and blend together. Add oats and fruit/nut/chocolate combo; mix thoroughly. It will be difficult to mix – you may need to use your hands, since there are almost more chunks than dough. Don’t worry about this too much in terms of baking, since the dough will rise a little around all of the “add-ins”. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets, and pat down a little into cookie shapes. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 1 minute on cookie sheets; remove to wire rack. Cool completely. Store tightly covered.
Yield: between 6 and 8 dozen cookies