Comfort Food

by Dawn Downey 

The to-go box on the kitchen counter held a piece of apple pie, a reward for toiling at my computer all morning after a breakfast date with my husband. I savored the anticipation as much as I was about to savor the pie. I imagined the treat nestled inside the box—a deep wedge of sweetness, the peaks of the crust a golden brown and the valleys glinting with sugar. It would be overstuffed with thick filling, an apple slice or two escaping the triangle. How the house would fill with the sweet aroma of hot apple pie when I heated it in the oven. Fork in hand, I opened the box. Staring me in the face was a pile of burnt crust pieces and goop that looked like something swept up from the floor. You call this pie? Scraps. 

Assholes. I can’t believe they pulled this. I should have checked the box before we left. No. I shouldn’t have to check. Maybe they didn’t pull anything. Sometimes pie comes out of the pan messy. Don’t make excuses for them. You might give this to a relative, not to a customer. Who did it? And did they know who the customer was? Assholes. 

As my husband and I pulled into the parking lot of a neighborhood cafe, freezing wind whipped the Stars and Stripes around a flagpole. The lot was packed with pick-ups, except for four off-duty police cruisers. I shoved my hands in my pockets and used Ben as a wind-break, crossing the lot to the restaurant, a red barn with green awnings. The kind of place frequented by regulars, which did not include me, my experience limited to one catfish lunch. Ben ate there often with a buddy. 

A bakery case spotlighted cobbler, cake, cinnamon rolls, and golden wedges of apple pie. The cops lounged at a round table, heads bowed, fingers at work on the keys of their cell phones. I scanned the room for non-white faces (There were none.) and simultaneously chastised myself for the automatic reaction. Beside the pass-through to the kitchen, a life-sized wooden pig held a sign ordering Eat More Chicken. Above the case, another sign boasted Home Cookin’. Just what I needed. Comfort food. In comfort food cafes, the servers were efficient, and they always called me honey. I had a soft spot for both qualities. 

A hostess approached, her expression set in a snarl. She glanced in my direction just long enough to ignore me, then shifted her slitty-eyed attention to a spot near Ben’s feet. “Two?” she asked. 

I knew that move. My sister and I had used it on each other when we were feuding. 

The hostess might have intended the attitude for me in particular, or she might have intended it for both of us. It was also possible a general bad mood had plastered the sneer on her face before we walked in. Ben didn’t seem to notice, much female nonverbal communication being under the male radar. He pointed to a vintage motorcycle balanced on top of a waist-high room divider. “Yeah, two. There’s a spot I like over by the Indian.” 

She’d already shuffled toward stools lined up at a counter. She veered from her original course and headed toward the divider. 

Ben said, “I mean the other side. It’s quieter. That okay?” 

“Wherever you want.” I only saw the back of her head, but I could tell she was rolling her eyes. She led us to a booth, where she dropped two menus onto the table. “Your waitress … “ Her departure swallowed the remainder of the sentence. 

A hook poked from a nearby coat rack, so I reached out to hang my parka. A customer was sitting across the room, glaring over her shoulder at me. I was used to catching an initial gawk when I walked into a room, and then the gawker’s face usually warmed into an embarrassed smile. This woman was ice. She spooked me. She parted her lips, and her companion slow-motioned his stare in my direction. I refused to turn away. Mouths set in twin grimaces, they stared for as long as it took me to hang my coat and fumble out of scarf and hat. I’d seen the expression before—on a couple of good ole boys in a little mountain town. They’d been sitting on chairs outside a pool hall, their legs stretched across the sidewalk, blocking my progress. Mouths frozen in twin grimaces, they waited a beat, then slow-motioned their resentful legs out of the way. 

When I shuddered into the booth, the placement of the table put my back to the couple. Damned if I didn’t land in the path of another poison stare. The woman sat alone in a corner, elbows on her table, coffee cup cradled in her hands. Eyes narrowed, she peered through the steam rising from her cup. Her shoulders were squared as she leaned forward, facing me head-on. She didn’t break eye contact. I was shocked. It was the glare that a guy in a rusted pick-up had used on me years before—both of us stopped at a red light. He’d made eye contact, held it, and then spat out his window. 

Ben studied his menu. I simmered. 

If I mentioned the incidents, how would the conversation go? Me: These people are staring at me. Ben: Well, yeah. You’re beautiful. Me: It’s not funny. And then I’d throw a fit. Or, Ben: Honey I’m sorry. Want to go somewhere else? Me: Let these people chase me off? And then I’d explode. Whatever he might say, I’d blow up. Anger concealed a tangle of other feelings I couldn’t unravel on the spot. Better to bury the knot under pancakes. 

Our server walked over. She was blue-collar skinny, and tension parted in the wake of her unhurried ease. “How are you folks, this morning?” She filled Ben’s cup without needing to ask him, warmth radiating from more than the coffee pot. “Need another minute?” 

I pointed to Number 6 on the menu. “Nope. Pancakes and eggs.” 

“How you want your egg, honey?” 

Servers who called me honey always took good care of me. I relaxed. 

“Scrambled.” Ben said, “Biscuits and gravy.” 

Before I had time to enumerate the ways that choice would shorten his lifespan, she set the plates in front of us. “I’ll be back to check on you.” After the pancakes did their job, I sipped hot tea. A border of chickens marched along the top of the walls, complemented by vintage tin signs. We Feed Our Chickens Gooch’s Best, bragged one. I chuckled at another, a hen that proclaimed He Rules the Roost, But I Rule the Rooster. My rooster and I solved the world’s problems, in between groans of satisfaction. Our server breezed by again to top off Ben’s cup. It seemed her timing was set by a secret code that passed between coffee-drinkers and servers. The magic of the transaction made me smile, and I shook my head in wonder as she walked into the second dining room. “How does she—” I froze. There above the doorway, next to Sweet Lassy Feeds, hung a movie poster for Gone With the Wind. 

But I did not see Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. I saw bloody stripes on naked black backs. I did not see a love story, I saw slavery. 

Despair and rage threatened to boil over. But I was on a spontaneous date with my husband; it had been my idea. Hell, I’d even picked the place. If I succumbed to my feelings, then the restaurant won. If I shared my feelings with Ben, the restaurant won anyway, by controlling my conversation. I would tell Ben later, at home. The restaurant would not win. 

A phantom self, covered in the slime of partially-digested insults, slipped from her tomb deep within my gut. While I caressed my husband’s fingertips, the phantom wailed, smashed plates, and threw chairs. She ripped the poster from the wall and set fire to— 

Our server gathered up our dirty dishes. “Honey, you got room for dessert?” 
 “Apple pie, please. To go.”

Fork in hand, I opened the box on the kitchen counter. Inside was a heap of burnt crust pieces and goop. 

Assholes. They’d piled scraps in my to-go box. I stared, open-mouthed. Scraps where there ought to be pie. But sometimes pie comes out of the pan messy. Don’t make excuses. But who filled the box? Maybe they didn’t know who the customer was. Maybe this is just about sloppy customer service. Yeah. Maybe. 

I was sick of the constant onslaught. Little things and big things. Repeatedly pulled over blocks from my house for two miles over the speed limit. People who bragged they were color blind. Magazine covers—their dark-skinned celebrities photo-shopped four shades lighter. Pairing up in diversity training class, my white colleagues picked each other and left me standing alone, the black trainer and me staring our disbelief/belief at each other. The neighbor who’d confronted me on my daily walk. “I’ve never seen you. Where do you live?” The straight-haired friend who wanted my nappy-hair dreadlocks, but she sure didn’t want my nappy-hair life. I was a news story on a loop: assault, protest, investigation, no indictment, protest, silence. Repeat. 

Maybe they hadn’t known who’d ordered dessert to-go. Yeah. Maybe. I lay my fork beside the open box. 

White privilege: the ability to attribute mangled pie to bad service. 

© Dawn Downey. All rights reserved.



Dawn Downey is the author of three memoirs: Searching for My Heart: Essays about Love, From Dawn to Daylight: Essays, and Stumbling Toward the Buddha: Stories about Tripping over My Principles on the Road to Transformation. She writes to spread kindness. By writing about her daily challenges, she sees the workings of her mind. In conversations with her fans, she learns that most minds work the same way. She hopes readers will lovingly accept the similarities—in themselves, their loved ones, and the people who drive them crazy. She lives in Kansas City MO with her husband, Ben Worth. Connect with her at dawndowney.com

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