Comfort food may be a universal concept, even among people who eat to live rather than living to eat, but what kinds of food are comforting may vary from person to person.
There are some universals there too, of course: even the haughtiest of purveyors of haute cuisine may once in a while crave a mac and cheese.
We’d wager, though, that most folks don’t think (as we do)of raw okra first when contemplating a snack, or brussels sprouts in butter (as we also do) for a light repast.
But what is comfort food, anyway? Is it a nosh or a meal? Definitions understood by most women will differ rather sharply from those offered by most men, since even today the division of labor in the home still generally leaves food preparation in the woman’s domain.
There are many exceptions and men who cook will define comfort food much as women will: apart from its comforting and sometimes nostalgic aspects, comfort food needs to be easy to fix.
For a person who doesn’t cook, that means holding out his or her hand after someone else has fixed it, easily or not!
Let’s assume, for the purpose of this discussion, that comfort food’s ease of preparation actually involves preparation, even if preparation means unscrewing the lid of a jar (or in our case, rinsing the okra and putting it in a bowl).
Nostalgia apparently plays a large, if not completely defining, role in identifying a comfort food.
Peanut butter and jelly (we like both title components chunky, and the bread has to be whole grain), macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches (sometimes with sliced tomato and often accompanied by a bowl of hot tomato soup) are popular American comfort foods.
They take very little time to prepare (even if you bake the macs after their six-minute boil, the addition of simple seasonings and real cheese — not powdered cheese sauce — and the sprinkling of a bread crumb topping) and one bite can reduce the maturest matron or the most staid senior sir to blissful babyhood.
There are, of course, comfort foods that are an acquired taste, and yet enough people have acquired that taste to pin them to the general yearning map.
Dips, for example, are not necessarily a childhood indulgence, since they tend not to be sweet, but there is barely an adult that doesn’t like to dip a chip or a pretzel into something creamily savory.
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Our most comforting discovery is the accurately named Helluva Good Dip; we’re partial to bacon horseradish and jalapeno cheddar, and we prefer to dip pretel rods.
Even a homemade dip takes but a few minutes; season some plain, unsweetened yoghurt, sour cream or a mixture of the two, then add horseradish, crumbled bacon, chopped onions, minced garlic, melted cheese, chopped tomatoes and/or bits of whatever you generally like in a dip.
One taste we have acquired is for Gjetost, pronounced yeah tohst. This is a Danish cheese byproduct, marketed in the United States by Ski Queen, that somehow tastes a lot like caramel.
It’s as rich as halva (a Jewish comfort candy — which remind us that for any Jew who didn’t somehow skip childhood, matza ball soup is comfort food plus) and should be eaten in minute amounts, to be savored as long as possible.
Kozy Shack rice pudding has won our hearts as well; rice pudding is nostalgic but before Kozy Shack released its comfortingly preservative-free product, exquisite rice pudding was mainly to be had in diners, where if one was very lucky one could also enjoy a black and white egg cream.
Heart healthy? Likely not. Soul-nourishing? Definitely!
Note how much dairy is involved in this litany of comfort foods. Perhaps this derives from the first comfort food most of us ever had: mother’s milk. Certainly that comfort involved more than mere satisfaction of hunger; it combined nourishment, satiation and affection.
No wonder so many people are addicted to food, and little surprise we turn to food when we need to feel pampered.
Is this, then, a sign of human weakness? We think not. It’s okay to love your mother, and as long as you don’t overdo it (or substitute food for other needs — be they physical or otherwise — there is nothing wrong with a bit of indulgence. You may take comfort in that!