(c) David Volk

The Fish Stick MealI just did something I haven't done since my father died and it was soooooo good even though it was soooo wrong.

Perhaps, a bit of background may be necessary here.

A task took me across town to Aurora Avenue, a section of town known for discount stores, discount hose and just plain ho's. Whenever I find myself in the area, I stop at one of my favorite grocery stores in the city. It's generically named "Grocery Outlet" because it specializes in selling stuff that other stores couldn't, overstocks, overruns, items that aren't quite perfect but taste fine and things that are just this side of their expiration dates. Thanks to a close friend, I call it "Smashed Foods."

Being the adventurous eater that I am, I'm forever stopping by the store to see what unusual vegetarian entrees it might have in the freezer case. Over the last few months I've had fake chicken parmesan, meatless cheeseburgers, egg rolls, a Linda McCartney brand vegetarian meal (even though she's dead), tofu meatballs, something called eggplant rolletes and some frozen potato and cheese pierogies that were amazingly tasty. So what if the brand name on the box was Cheemo?

With the possible exception of the dreadful fake meatloaf with fake gravy, all of them are good and all of them are cheap, generally costing less than $2.

Today, however, I found the best bargain ever. It was almost as if the skies parted, the sun shone through and the angels sang on this dreary, cloudy Seattle day when I stepped up to the freezer case and found a fish stick TV dinner complete with macaroni and cheese and peas for 99 cents. It wasn't the cost that appealed to me, though. It was the sticks. Sure, I knew they'd be bad, but that wasn't the point. Comfort food was.

Years ago, whenever my dad worked afternoon shift at his pharmacy and mom was already in the office, he'd make fish sticks. Sometimes Mrs. Pauls, sometimes Gorton's, other times a generic brand I still can't remember. I do remember if I was lucky and happened to be home at the time, he would even share a few of them with me. And, oh, they were delightful to a kid who hadn't gone out into the world and tasted Ivar's fried salmon, orange roughy or even a really good ceviche. They were manna from heaven and I got to share them with my best friend.

All that came rushing back to me today when I put the plastic tray on the cookie sheet in the oven and eagerly awaited lunch. A microwave would have just ruined it. When the timer rang 30 minutes later, I couldn't wait to pull it out of the oven. I know I should have kept them in longer to let the sticks crisp, but I just couldn't wait. They were just as I remembered them. The elbow macaroni was covered in gooey cheese the color of a melted orange Crayola crayon, small, slightly crispy frozen peas that are an important part of any cheap frozen dinner and salty, breaded, half-crispy, half-flabby sticks with meat inside that was too hot to eat, but I did it any way.

And it was so bad, it was good.

Some people consider meat loaf comfort food, others gravitate to mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, biscuits or even pumpkin pie, but for me it's fish sticks every time.

From a man whose avoiding work,

David G(etting back to work) Volk