I just returned from a weekend family reunion where, for 36 hours, I retraced childhood footsteps and the soulful meaning of comfort food.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
Walking down Main Street of Buffalo Center, the tiny northwest Iowa town where my dad and his siblings grew up, I picked out the storefront formerly occupied by an old-fashioned drugstore.
I remembered sitting on a twirly, leather-covered stool at a marble-topped counter, sipping on cherry phosphates as a youngster.
There was the memory, too, of the Dairy Freeze that occupied the shadow of Buffalo Center’s grain elevator on Iowa Highway 9.
That sight — when my dad would start the ditty, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream”— officially signaled to my brother, sister and me, piled into the family station wagon, that we had arrived in the magical burg where “uptown” meant “downtown” and Grandma Winter would squire us around in her 1955 turquoise and white two-tone Chevy while we sucked on penny candy, feeling like a prince and princesses.
This weekend’s reunion was a boisterous gathering of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews who traveled from all corners of the globe — England, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Cedar Falls, Sioux City and Kansas City — to honor the 86-year-old family matriarch who mentored and encouraged each of us at one time in our lives.
Tins with homemade cookies, plates bearing frosted cakes and bowls brimming with fresh-made salsa appeared as each traveler joined the reunion and were placed on a kitchen counter that quickly looked like a county fair bake sale.
Tupperware lids were pried open and, before lunch was served, people munched on peanut butter kisses, Snickerdoodles and pecan sandies.
The weekend centered around meals: lunch at the Heritage Center with a main course of fragrant chalupa pork stew ladled from a slow cooker; dinner in nearby Thompson at the Branding Iron where Iowa pork chops, beef ribs and steaks dominated the menu; Sunday morning brunch in Northwood, Iowa, where the giant frosted cinnamon rolls were a crowd favorite.
During the six-hour drive back to Kansas City on Sunday afternoon, I silently reflected on my inner contentment — I felt full, satisfied, refreshed.
Mixed in with childhood memories and the role food plays as an adult comforter, I was reminded of another time when food took center stage.
My husband of 18 years, Richard, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in April 2006. We took many trips during the first 17 months of his illness, traveling to MD Anderson in Houston for a second opinion and to Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis for palliative treatments.
All the while friends and family appeared on our doorstep, fortifying us with homemade soups, casseroles, cakes and cookies.
There were countless lasagnas, fresh-from-the-oven loaves of bread, frosted brownies, lemon cakes, fruit pies and pints of Foo’s.
Take-out from Jasper’s, Cupini’s, the Bristol, and even tins of Topsy’s popcorn. Barbecue sandwiches from Jack Stack and Gates. Stroud’s fried chicken and fixings.
Burgers and fries from Winstead’s.
Every time Richard and I ate the food bestowed upon us, for an instant, it seemed it might have the power to cancel out his diagnosis.
That perhaps his sister’s brisket or my sister’s noodle bake or our friend Janis’s ham ball dinner would make the black cloud disappear.
Richard passed on April 28, 2008, two years and one week following that unforgettable day when a doctor found the cancer.
But in the 48 hours prior to his death, Richard —and the rest of us gathered around him — found comfort in food.
Our friend John Humphrey asked what he could bring to the hospital on the Saturday afternoon when things started looking particularly bleak.
Richard, without hesitation and even through a morphine cloud, said, “A Winstead’s double, onion rings, fries and a limeade.”
The request signified an element of comfort for Richard, who adored going to Winstead’s on the Plaza with his father or grandfather or sisters as a kid, a tradition he continued in adulthood.
On our wedding night, after the ceremony and a lovely reception at The Folly Theater and a late-night pizza at Lou Jane Temple’s Café Lulu, we instructed our limo driver to take us to the Winstead’s drive-through on Shawnee Mission Parkway.
Newly married, Richard and I ate burgers and fries, slurping limeades in our wedding finery. He shared more stories about going to Winstead’s as a kid and other memories about growing up in a family who loved food.
That April Saturday in 2008, John brought the bag — spotted through with grease — filled with Richard’s favorite childhood eats and laid out a feast on the St. Luke’s hospital table, cracking jokes and making us laugh as only he could do.
I remember the straw stuck into the brightly colored Winstead’s cup with the limeade, being brought up to Richard’s parched lips. The familiar etchings of pain on his face were nearly erased, a goofy smile lighting up his face as the cold liquid traveled down his throat.
There was temporary relief in that hospital room, courtesy of John’s Winstead’s delivery.
Nothing had changed — Richard was still slipping away — but the familiar sustenance offered by the burger and fries and the sugary, tart drink was enough to comfort him, and us.
Driving back into Kansas City last night, approaching the Shawnee Mission Parkway I-35 south exit, I asked my partner, Mr. G, to pull off.
We went to Winstead’s and I ceremoniously ordered singles, fries, onion rings and limeades at the drive-through speaker.
We washed down the steakburgers and salty fries with long swallows of limeade.
I felt content — full, satisfied, refreshed.
Comfort me with food — and Winstead’s.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.