Comfort Food During Uncomfortable Times

Every Sunday night, I have a group phone call with my dad and his sister, my aunt. They are both in their seventies, and probably like most of you with your parents, I can’t talk about politics with them. What’s the point? They are both dyed-in-the-wool Fox News watchers and lifelong Republican voters. So, yeah, we don’t talk about politics. Instead, I’ve improvised a game we can play over the phone. I basically stole it from the 1970s television game show “Password,” in which I ably play the role of host Allen Ludden and give one-word clues for a hidden word they have to guess. The more clues, the fewer points they can win, and since they are both very competitive, they enjoy the interaction.


Our version of the game is dubbed “Jones Family Password,” with the person, place, or thing categories revolving around only words that my immediate family would know. Typically, the “thing” words revolve around comfort food from my childhood, staples that women at our church would bring to the Wednesday evening potlucks. I can give a one-word clue of “Anderson” and one of them will shout out “Tater Tot Casserole,” while “Clark” solicits an immediate “macaroni and cheese.”


I suppose we all have our favorite comfort foods, and over the past few distressing months I’ve certainly wanted to lose myself in a Tater Tot Casserole or two. But here in Paris all restaurants have been closed since the end of October (except for the big fast-food chains that do takeout), so it has been especially challenging for me to calm my nerves while watching election night stretch into an interminable week, followed by the endless nonsense of “he who shall not be named” leading up to the tragic events of January 6 at the Capitol. In normal times, I would be able to escape into a steaming hot bowl of French onion soup, with its melted gruyère cheese browned to a crispy layer over a slice of baguette bread, concealing the brothy goodness of sautéed onions and seasoned bouillon.


Lazy weekend afternoons at a Paris sidewalk café are sadly a relic from the distant past, and now all I long for is a big basket of freshly prepared, lightly salted French fries (frîtes, as they are called here) to share with my husband as we read the newspaper, people watch, and sip our wine. Having takeout fries from McDonalds back at home feels tragically sad, and I feel even more depressed after scarfing them down. But if you’re going to do it, at least try to be a little classy. The Belgians dip their fries in mayonnaise, which I’ve never understood, and we replace the American ketchup with a sinus-clearing dab of Dijon mustard as our condiment of choice.


Desperate times bring desperate measures, so as our second restricted COVID-19 confinement has now dragged into its third month, I’ve begun experimenting more in our home kitchen. Once we had our first snow of the season, I said longingly to my husband, “You know what would be great tonight?”


He arched his eyebrows, and said, “We did THAT last night ….”


“No, no,” I said. He was obviously not on the same wavelength, although the previous night was good. “Where would you want to be eating dinner tonight if we could?”


“Ohhh,” he said, now on the same page. “Fondue!”


We had received one of those really nice Sur La Table fondue sets as a wedding gift, and while the gesture was lovely, we had never used it because it seemed more than a little intimidating, with its open flame and long pointy forks and all. Plus, there was a wonderful cheese fondue restaurant five minutes away from us, so why bother? But now that bubbling cauldron of melted cheeses seasoned with white wine and spices was not a possibility, unless we made it ourselves.


After watching a couple of tutorial videos on YouTube, we bought our ingredients and brought down the still pristine fondue set from its storage perch. The Sterno kind of freaked us both out, but we finally had it all ready to go. We took the obligatory Instagram photos to proudly show off our culinary skills and then savored that first homemade fondue feast on the first snowy weekend of the new year.


We are barely into 2021, and making fondue on Sunday nights has become a kind of tradition. Paired with a chilled dry Sauvignon and the visual equivalent of comfort food (“The Crown” on Netflix), there is no place I would rather be. So for those of you playing from home, if I give you the following clues to a “thing” — Sunday, flame, fork — the correct answer is “cheese fondue.”