In the past few months, I have spent perhaps hundreds of hours watching the Food Network. While I have always been familiar with the power of comfort food, I am now of the very strong opinion that comfort food TV is even better where missing my Mack is concerned. It occurred to me the other day that on particularly sorrowful and lonely evenings, I find myself settled in on my brown leather recliner in my cozy bedroom, watching the Food Network. Some nights I come out of my comfort food TV coma and realize I have just watched four episodes of Chopped and two episodes of Cupcake Wars! For this, I blame Mack, and here’s why…
Like most kids, Mack was a TV addict. Like most millennials, she was raised on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. But my little Macko was also a little weirdo, and she spent more hours watching the fledgling Food Network than she spent watching SpongeBob SquarePants. And that, my friends, is saying something. Mack watched the Food Network way before the Food Network was cool, and by the time she was eight-years-old, Mack had favorite celebrity chefs. Now, I ask you, have you ever known a kid who could name even one celebrity chef? Among Mack’s favorites were Bobby Flay because he was “cute and rocked the spicy food,” Rachel Ray because she was always doing a “Mack happy-happy dance,” and Paula Dean because she used such generous quantities of Mack’s beloved bacon and butter. Mack also had opinions about chefs she did not like so much. She called Giada de Laurentiis “Dinosaur Lady” because of her large head and teeny body; and to my Mack, Ina Garten, aka the Barefoot Contessa, was “The Boring Contessa.”
Mack critiqued, mimicked, and mocked most all of the Food Network chefs, but she was also a cute little fountain of food knowledge, thanks to the Food Network. She frequently asked me why our humble Springfield kitchen lacked pancetta, truffle oil, or an immersion circulator. I think Mack might have been about ten when she announced that she well understood the Food Network show formula, that she had her own food “point of view,” and her show Mack’s Mackin’ Bacon was sure to make her the next Food Network star. She made a very good argument, too, that food TV viewers wanted to watch chefs cook unhealthy ingredients. She was absolutely certain, as well, that her own humorous and creative approach to a beautiful slab of bacon was certain to result in international chef celebrity, culinary endorsements, and her own line of bacon and bacon-related products. And, most importantly, she promised to outfit my kitchen with that immersion circulator just as soon as she had achieved her culinary dreams.
Mack was never very good at keeping her obsessions to herself, and she chose me to share her love of comfort food TV. Her bait was Iron Chef America, as I suppose she thought I’d dig the sporting aspect of the show. At first I thought cooking competition shows were ridiculous, and the weird “chairman” master of ceremonies and the frenetic pacing of Iron Chef made me anxious. But Mack persisted, frequently begging me to sit on the end of her bed and watch the unveiling of the “mystery ingredient” or the judging of plates at the end of the show. To entertain me further, Mack impersonated the food-nerd-host Alton Brown, who played the role of a sideline reporter, and she cackled every time the show employed instant replay when the chefs flipped an omelet or tossed a strawberry-basil granita base into the blast chiller. Mack’s giggle always did bring me around. As well, I marveled at her knowledge of the cooking techniques employed by the chefs, and her infectious enthusiasm for watching them prepare creative and beautifully plated dishes under absurd time constraints finally wore be down.
My favorite activity with Mack was watching sports, but my second favorite activity was, ultimately, watching the Food Network. Late at night we would sit up and watch Mack’s favorite shows and talk about cooking and food. During those three precious months before Mack left for college (and her dad was already settled in St. Louis), we watched episode after episode of Chopped. Mack had used Iron Chef as the gateway drug to get me hooked on comfort food TV, and now I’d rather waste an hour watching an episode of Chopped than doing almost anything else. It should not have surprised me that Mack enjoyed food competition shows. I should not have been shocked that I lined up right behind her to consume so many myself. I guess the foodie nut does not fall far from foodie tree.
But what I would never have guessed then and only fully recognized a few days ago, is that one simple joy of Mack’s is now a simple and comforting lifeline for me. I can settle in to taste some good comfort food TV and escape my sorrows. I can easily imagine Mack sitting next to me as four talented chefs try to make a tasty appetizer out of Chinese celery, fresh chickpeas, preserved lemons, and country-style pâté. I can see Mack Googling preserved lemons on her IPhone and suggesting some creative way that the chefs might integrate them into a dish without overwhelming the chickpeas. I can hear her evil little giggle when one of the chefs inadvertently omits one of the basket ingredients. And I can feel her excitement as another chef haphazardly splatters a wine-reduction sauce across the plates just as time expires.
I find myself now wondering if Mack’s addiction to butter, bacon, and spicy food and her own cheerful and kooky food-nerd personality had less to do with her parents and her own family food traditions and more to do with the hundreds of late night hours and school holidays she spent consuming the Food Network. I also now ponder the prospect that Mack may have spent her life after college pursuing some career that married two of her great passions: TV and food. But there is one thing I know for certain: my girl gave me the gift of comfort food TV, it was a simple and silly pleasure we enjoyed together, and Mack is using it now as her own mystery ingredient for Momma Bear coping on my more sorrowful nights without her.