Burning Question: What is comfort food?

Burning Question: What is comfort food?
Many in the South would consider fried green tomatoes, like these at Bull Shooter’s in Auxvasse, to be a source of comfort. [Dave Faries]
David Faries

It’s cliché that a writer stumped over just how to get a story started, will lead off with “the dictionary defines …”

In the matter of comfort foods, however, turning to the big book of definitions might just be necessary.

“What is comfort food? I don’t know,” said Stacey Conklin, owner of the homey Stacey’s Place in Mexico. “Chicken pot pies, meat loaf, tacos, fried chicken, pie – I could go on and on.”

The problem, she points out, is that anyone can define comfort food. So the American canon might include mac and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, tuna melts, ice cream and so on. But even within this list are regional favorites, such as coney dogs in Detroit, chicken fried steak across Texas, loco moco in the Hawaiian Islands or St. Louis’ toasted ravioli.

And that’s before you start looking beyond the borders, from poutine to moussaka, chilaquiles, kare kare to Berlin’s fascination with curry wurst.

“It’s a hard one to answer,” agreed Tonya Clayton, an owner of Bull Shooter’s in Auxvasse. “A snack cake would be mine.”

Even labeling a restaurant as a haven for comfort food can be a trap. What if you didn’t have chicken soup, or matzo ball soup for that matter, on the menu. What if someone from Cincinnati wanted chili?
“That’s why I go with ‘American restaurant,’” Conklin said with a laugh.

So to go back to the top, maybe turning to a dictionary might help.

Well, according to Collins English Dictionary, “if you call something comfort food, you mean it is enjoyable to eat and makes you happier, although it may not be very good for your health.” Merriam-Webster settles on “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.”

Cambridge Dictionary focuses on the emotional aspect, with a touch of nostalgia, calling it “the type of food that people eat when they are sad or worried, often sweet food or food that people ate as children.”
With these definitions there is some agreement.

“In my eyes it’s food I grew up on, when people had family meals,” Conklin observed.

Yet the dictionaries have fallen short before when it comes to comfort food. Writing in The Atlantic, Cari Romm found that Oxford English Dictionary added the phrase to their pages for the first time in 1997. In their explanation, they traced comfort food to a 1977 article on Southern cooking in the Washington Post magazine that mentioned grits and black-eyed peas.

But Romm discovered mention of comfort food more than a decade earlier. In 1966 the Palm Beach post tackled the subject of obesity, observing that “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called, ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.”

The headline? Sad Child May Overeat.

This brings up another twist. Or as Clayton said, the definition “depends on what they are reaching to comfort food for.”

Conklin points out that turning to food for comfort can be good if it provides solace, or potentially bad, if the person finishes off that entire bag of pork rinds in one sitting.

But research suggests food isn’t truly the focus at all. A study by SUNY-Buffalo and University of the South, it is the formation of a social bond that soothes, rather than the particular food itself. Subjects in the study with strong emotional relationships found a lift from comfort foods. Those without, not so much.

Which brings everything back to nostalgia and those memories of family meals, right?

Well, a 2014 study in Health Psychology reported that comfort foods did brighten moods. But so did other foods. And the group receiving no food at all? Their moods got better, as well.

The authors of that research came to the conclusion that comfort food was merely an excuse to settle in and eat something you enjoy.

Clayton might agree. She pegs the cheeseburger at Bull Shooter’s as pure comfort.

“You eat and fill up, then you’re ready for a couch and a blanket,” she said.


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