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Twinkies, Campbell's and Jell-O: Everyone's First Love

A post-Thanksgiving sinus infection inspires Sally Higginson to play favorites with her food, and it's not the leftovers she's craving, but a box of Lipton's chicken soup.

Face it: everyone has favorites.

All those kids who begged to know from their parents if they were the most beloved child? They got answered with the stock parental line, “Your father and I don’t have a favorite. We love all of our children equally.” Lies, lies, lies. There is a preferential order to everything.

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I thought about this the other day, as I shoved the ninth load of post-Thanksgiving laundry into my front-loading washing machine. “I love you,” I murmured to the white enamel Maytag. “You’re my favorite appliance.” Let the dryer or freezer or dishwasher hear my declaration of love. I don’t care. It’s true. I love my washing machine the most. It’s my favorite appliance, disposal be damned. 

What caught me off-guard, however, was when my health failed and I began to slide into the depth of misery only a sinus infection and sore throat can induce, and I realized I needed my favorite foods. I opened the fridge and perused its post-holiday contents: three types of gourmet cranberry sauces, a Tupperware filled with left-over oyster and chestnut stuffing, a few remaining pieces of homemade osso buco, and about three servings of the Silver Palate’s curried butternut squash soup. 

None of it looked appealing. What I wanted could be found only in boxes or cans, stored at the back of my pantry or stocked on the interior shelves of every grocery store across the country.

What I longed for was a box of Lipton’s chicken noodle soup, with a chaser of Campbell’s tomato soup, served with a generous supply of Ritz crackers crumbled on top. When I don’t feel well, these are my favorites. Foodies be damned. Not a thing from any salad bar could tempt me. I had to have something with a shelf-date that could safely be ignored for up to a decade. 

It got me wondering: was I the only one left searching her cupboards for the over processed, nutrition-free foods of my childhood? Sure the news is full of adults faux-lamenting the passing of the Hostess dynasty. But really, when was the last time anyone served a child a Twinkie? In this, the era of Whole Foods and fun-sized carrots at McDonald’s, I don’t know a single person with a regular stockpile of Ho Hos.

The real foodie in the family is my sister, Betsy. Armed with a degree in Hotel Administration from Cornell University, she knows a lot about food. And by food, I pretty much mean baking. But she can cook, too. So I thought I would ask her about her views on what makes the ideal comfort food for an ailing adult. I wanted to know what was her favorite?

“Chicken and Stars.” That answer popped out of her mouth before I finished the question. “It’s true. But sometimes you need a little fried chicken. Not so much if you’re really sick. But if you just feel a little low….” I knew why we were sisters.

“I like a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios,” she added. “And Ginger Ale. Toast with jelly. Yeah, toast with jelly is good.” She started to get all glossy eyed and nostalgic, thinking about the glory days of our youth, when we stayed home for real or imagined illnesses, and our mother would make a little Jell-O and maybe a poached eggy-weggy. Yes. A lot of our mother’s food rhymed. It didn’t make it taste better. But who can say no to an eggy-weggy?

Despite my sore throat and stuffed nose, I was at Betsy’s house. She’s recovering from shoulder surgery, so a productive day for her involves watching not just one but two episodes of “Ellen.” I wasn’t worried about spreading my germs because, well, she’s my sister, so who cares? And I figured misery loves company, so there we were together. 

“What kind of jelly do you have?” I asked. Rifling through her pantry with her good arm, she produced a jar of Smucker’s. We made toast, smothered it with the sugar passing for strawberries, and sat down to watch some daytime tv.

But first, Betsy ran to her laundry room and pulled out two luxurious throws, fresh from the dryer.

They were still warm. They smelled divine. They enveloped us in comfort.

“Oh,” I sighed. “I love when stuff is still warm from the dryer. I love the dryer. It’s my favorite appliance.” 

And just like that, the front-loader fell from grace.  And as I got over my cold, those boxes of Lipton’s noodle soup lost some of their luster. In fact, I’m wondering if there’s any osso buco still left in the fridge. It’s my favorite. Yum.

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