To this day, my mother still uses her great-grandmother’s cast-iron skillet to make fried chicken, the buttermilk-brined legs and thighs coated in flour and still more buttermilk before being nestled in a shallow pool of gently bubbling lard. I have an intimate relationship with the rich, mouth-coating taste of the gravy she makes out of the drippings. I know the exact color the roux should become as the flour cooks down (something between soft muslin and hardy burlap). I’ve been apprised of her secrets: heavy cream, chicken stock, salt—lots of salt. These are the ingredients of my fondest childhood memories. This is my comfort food.
Not your childhood? Not your comfort food? Well, it’s a personal thing. How else to explain the anger we feel upon discovering that the kid who grew up down the street, a kid we thought we knew, has the audacity to think that mashed potatoes taste better with brown gravy? (Yeah, yeah, yeah—his mom’s brown gravy recipe has its own antediluvian origins in, you know, Hungary. Whatever. We still can’t believe we used to be friends with him.)
Needless to say, questioning people’s taste in comfort food means insulting more than their palates. It means insulting their childhood, their family traditions, the way their mothers and grandmothers cooked, the integrity of the Luby’s they ate at after church on Sundays.
Yet still we argue—about whether beans belong in chili, why chicken-fried steak should be served with the gravy on the side, how someone could possibly think that fancy macaroni and cheese has any place in this world. We argue as if there’s some objective standard, even as we know that comfort food is subjective by definition. It’s the shrimp and grits—or cheese enchiladas or bowl of pho—that makes us feel the way we did when someone we loved gave us something good to eat. And that’s something worth fighting over.
In this town, thanks to the deeply diverse array of Houstonians who’ve come to call it home over the years, comfort food runs the gamut from congee to kolaches. Within the variety, however, a few common themes have emerged: chicken-fried steak, for instance, makes its way onto Vietnamese restaurant menus like Hughie’s; fried chicken is now beloved from Korea to Kentucky; grilled cheese’s many manifestations now have entire food trucks devoted to them; macaroni and cheese must make its way onto the menu of any Nigerian-Guatemalan fusion sushi bar worth its salt. No mac ‘n’ cheese on the menu? Get out. Just go.
It’s dishes like these that we’ll be debating, deliberating over, and arguing about in the pages that follow: deep-rooted Southern comfort foods that every self-respecting citizen of Houstonia ought to have an opinion on. Haven’t picked a side yet in the great gravy battle? Still in the undecided column when it comes to Goodson’s vs. Mel’s? Your fence-sitting days are over. Pick a flag and plant it. We’re going to war.