Comfort with a Dash of Nostalgia

By Ann Thelen

There is something about the sun setting earlier, the crisp air and the sensory pleasures of autumn that make you want to put a pot of soup on the stove or serve up your family’s favorite comfort foods.

Special memories and the foods we associate with those times and events are the embodiment of comfort foods. These foods come in many forms, but it’s usually that special – and maybe a bit unusual – pairing of foods that get our taste buds going.

We all have connections to food that immediately take us on a mindful journey back to a nostalgic time and place. Perhaps it’s the scent of a beef roast slowly baked in the oven to perfection with caramelized onions, carrots and potatoes – combined with golden brown and savory gravy – that reminds you of dinners around the family dinner table. Or, perhaps it’s that whiff of homemade cookies with a cold glass of fresh milk that makes you feel you’re back at grandma’s house.

Do you ever wonder why comfort meals consist of such things as bacon and eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, chicken and waffles, or cinnamon rolls and chili? There are certain food combinations that pair so effortlessly and deliciously that they're forever enshrined in our lists of culinary delights.

We recently sat down with Darcy Maulsby – a west central Iowa writer, farmer, foodie and author of A Culinary History of Iowa – to learn more about the comfort foods that tastefully satisfy our palate, give us a peaceful state of mind and have us coming back for seconds (or thirds)!

From your perspective, what is a comfort food? Are all comfort foods the same?

While comfort foods can be found in different cultures around the world, comfort food and Iowa cooking truly go hand-in-hand. Comfort food is usually whatever you grew up with – what brought you joy as a child. It’s all about reconnecting with those memories. And, it doesn’t always have to be the food you eat. It may be more about creating the food, such as cutting out and decorating sugar cookies with your mom and siblings during the Christmas season.

How did people come up with creative food pairings? Who would have thought peanut butter and jelly would become a favorite for kids and kids at heart?

There is no one better at coming up with random food pairings than a farmer’s wife. As part of the farming family, she often uses the goods she has on hand to create delicious and nutritious meals. That was especially true decades ago when many farm wives did not work outside the home. Her creativity shines through when pairing different items together to create a hearty soup, healthy sandwich or wonderful dessert. When you know what foods you like and what combinations you enjoy, such as sweet and salty, pairing foods almost comes instinctively to a cook.

Cinnamon rolls and chili is a favorite combination for Iowans, especially during the autumn season when farmers and farm families are putting in long hours to harvest crops. Tell us how people came to love this sweet and spicy combination.

No one knows exactly where the superb idea of eating cinnamon rolls with chili began, but it has become an obsession for generations of school kids across Iowa. If you’re like me, that was one of my favorite lunches at school. Today, teachers inform me that it remains the most popular school lunch at many area schools.

There are variations of this classic combination. In the Lake City School District, for example, the talented school cooks (including many farm wives who were expert home cooks) started early in the morning on chili lunch day to make their fabulous homemade caramel rolls. The sweet, spicy aroma emanating from the kitchen by mid-morning was enough to have every stomach growling. I can still taste the pure bliss bursting forth from each bite of sweet, golden caramel that enveloped soft, twisted folds of dough slathered with creamy butter and cinnamon.

Other schools in Iowa served cinnamon rolls with white frosting rather than caramel rolls on chili day. Still, other school districts served peanut-butter sandwiches on chili day. While a few people who grew up in Iowa claim they never experienced chili and cinnamon rolls for school lunch, it’s a beloved tradition that continues to delight countless young Iowans in school districts across the state.

While the chili-and-cinnamon-roll phenomenon seems to be a distinctly Iowa thing, a few other Midwestern states lay claim to it as well, including Nebraska and Kansas. Not all Midwesterners have been initiated into the joys of chili and cinnamon rolls, however. When I described this magical combination to a friend who grew up in Minnesota, she recoiled in horror and exclaimed, “That combination makes no sense. It’s like serving scrambled eggs with birthday cake!”

What is the secret to making tender and gooey cinnamon or caramel rolls that pull apart with perfection?

It’s one simple ingredient. Potatoes. And, they should be Yukon Gold potatoes, which provide a creamier texture than the starchier Russet potatoes. The potatoes don’t change the flavor, but they help to keep the rolls moist. You can find one of Darcy’s favorite cinnamon roll recipes below.

What is your favorite comfort food combination?

There are so many that it’s hard to choose one. I love soup, and soup can be anything. I’m always mixing different foods that I love and complement each other to create a savory soup that warms the body and soul (see below for Darcy’s Ham and Cheese Tortellini Soup recipe.) Growing up on a farrow-to-finish pig farm, Saturday evenings were always soup and sandwich night. My Grandma Katherine also made an incredible tuna and noodle casserole, fondly known as “tuna slop” that I love to this day.

Nowadays, in addition to soup, some of my comfort food recipes are meatloaf and doctored-up mashed potatoes. This magical pairing is delicious and soul-satisfying. It doesn’t get much better than that when it comes to comfort food. 

Celebrate National Pork Month and the harvest season with Tortellini Corn Chowder with Bacon and Ham. In this soup, smoky bacon and ham combine with tender cheese tortellini for a creamy and comforting take on the usual corn chowder.

Tortellini Corn Chowder with Bacon and Ham

 3 slices bacon

1 onion, chopped

1 rib celery, chopped

1 cup red, orange, yellow peppers, diced

2 cups fresh, canned or frozen corn kernels (about one and a half cans of canned corn)

2 cups chicken broth

1 cup sliced carrots

⅓ cup all-purpose flour or Wondra flour

3 cups milk

⅓ cup chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

8 ounces low-fat fresh or frozen cheese tortellini, cooked and drained

1 to 2 cups diced ham

Directions

1. Set a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add bacon. Cook for 1 minute. Add onion, celery and bell peppers. Cook for 5 minutes, or until vegetables are soft. Add corn, chicken broth and carrots. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium. Simmer for 15 minutes.

2. Place flour in a medium bowl. Gradually add milk, whisking until smooth. Pour into Dutch oven. Stir until well-blended. Add basil and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes, or until the soup thickens. Add tortellini and ham. Cook for 2 minutes, or until heated through. Makes 8 servings.

You can learn more about the cinnamon roll and chili tradition in Iowa, sign up for Darcy’s Iowa food and history blog updates (go to http://www.darcymaulsby.com/index), and access Darcy’s favorite caramel roll recipe on her blog at http://www.darcymaulsby.com/blog-detail/chili-and-cinnamon-rolls-remain-the-best-school-lunch-ever-