In the childhood of a Midwestern potluck dinner orphan, one-pot meals were as dangerous as closets. Inside the Dutch ovens and baking dishes could be the cheerful and delicious supper we desperately wanted, or lurking therein could be the sorrow of tuna casserole. There was no way of knowing until you looked inside, and even then it was chancy. The fact that my mother, though a gifted home ec teacher, was a dubious cook, did not make those communal dinners (or the smaller shell games at home) any less of a treasure hunt.
What my sister and I truly wanted, then as now, was what we’ve all come to call comfort food: archetypal, banal, soothing, craveable. Lifting the lids, we wanted available steam to rise above twirls of spaghetti, red sauce and meatballs, perfume of happiness. (Baked cod does not carry the perfume of happiness.)
Because spaghetti and meatballs was both a default, kid-friendly dish — noodles, vaguely anonymous meat, sauce in the category of red — and aspirational food, though we didn’t yet understand why.