Through thunderstorms and wisdom teeth, homesickness and just plain old regular sickness, what gets me through and keeps me going is comfort food.

When I want comfort food, there is typically one of three (3) specific meals that I crave: half of a grilled cheese and a bowl of baked beans; pasta (with my dad’s sauce, if possible, but if not, then with Classico four cheese sauce and a small mountain of mozzarella cheese on top); or chicken pastry.

Not to be confused with chicken and dumplings, chicken pastry (or chicken slick if you’re in the know) is like all the plus sides of soup without actually having to eat soup. (I’m not a soup fan, it’s important that everyone knows that. Not for any actual reasons pertaining to this story, it’s just something everyone should know. Carry on.)

I was born and raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, so I’ve had the chance to be in the know, and to be in the know that there’s only one place to go for chicken slick: Oak Level Cafe.

One of my all-time favorite hole-in-the-wall joints, this cinderblock building located smack dab between Rocky Mount and Nashville is filled with life and love enough to embrace and fill up any stranger who walks through their door. I’ve gotten chicken pastry from Oak Level for as long as I can remember, long enough that I’m a recognizable face for some of the staff.

From the time I walk in the door, there’s a grin on my face out of sheer excitement for the incoming bowl of happiness. By the time I get up to the buffet bar to order, I’ve been spotted.

Behind the buffet line is Mary, who for years I’ve only known as The Pastry Lady. And of course, for years she’s only known me as The Pastry Girl. Mary is my favorite lady at Oak Level Cafe, because by the time I get up to the line she’s laughing and already knows exactly what I want.

She allows an almost pause, just to confirm that yes, I will be getting the same exact thing that I’ve gotten for years (chicken pastry) and do I want hush puppies (the answer is always yes) and do I want any sides (I don’t think I’ve ever had anything from Oak Level except their chicken slick, hush puppies and sweet tea, but I’ve heard good things.)

I finally introduced myself to Mary recently, as I figured it was long past time to know my Pastry Angel, and it would probably be a good idea for her to have some other association with me than moderately unhealthy food.

The first bite of pastry always burns my tongue, but it’s worth it. From the first mouthful I can feel my arteries clogging up, which is how you know it’s good country cooking — just enough butter and salt. And of course, sweet tea to soothe my scalded tongue, which gives the next bite just enough extra seconds to not be quite as hot.

Whether it’s the fond memories or the fact that I eat it scalding hot, chicken pastry warms me up from the inside, like the feeling of coming home. It’s all part of the experience; if any part was different, it wouldn’t be the same. It just feels different when it’s not Mary at the counter, or if I don’t get sweet tea, or I take it to-go.

To my friends at Oak Level Cafe: keep up the great (tasting) work. I’ll see you soon for a pastry (and heart) refuel.