Writer’s Note: While writing my last column on how we are coping with the pandemic, I noticed how much food plays a role in all of that. That brought to mind the expression “comfort food”. What is “comfort food”? Are there specific foods that are frequently called “comforting”? Are there differences in what is thought of as “comfort food” among geographic regions? In other words, is macaroni and cheese as “comforting” in the north as it apparently is in the South?
Seemed like something interesting to explore. I certainly have my favorite foods that I turn to when things get tough. Like Lewis Grizzard, I understand the importance of comfort food. Grizzard loved Southern vegetables, and often turned to them for comfort. He wrote, “It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” Who can argue with that? — GP
Defining ‘Comfort Food’
According to Merriam-Webster, “comfort food” is “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” That’s a pretty good definition, although perhaps a tad too “formal” for such an informal subject.
As a child, I had some favorite foods that I often asked for, but I only thought of them as “favorites”. It wasn’t until years later, after my mother’s death, that I understood what “comfort food” really is. I found myself longing for my mother’s fried chicken. Full disclosure here — her fried chicken was the most delicious, perfectly cooked fried chicken ever prepared anywhere, by anyone. I can still remember what it looked like, what it tasted like, and how wonderful I felt when I sat at her table enjoying it.
I found among the earliest written references to comfort food in the writings of President Thomas Jefferson. He said that on hot Virginia days, there was
“. . . nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle.” While I’m not sure that a spiced pickle would give me much comfort, I am glad it gave some to Jefferson.
Is There An American Comfort Food?
Colman Andrews, in an interesting article entitled “America’s Favorite Comfort Foods” published in October 2019 (updated in January 2020), discussed the idea of “comfort food”. Andrews wrote that these are those foods that both satisfy hunger and warm us emotionally — “Certain dishes comfort us more than others because they’re familiar, unchallenging, easy to love — and because they’re linked to times or places when and where we have been content.”
Andrews humorously (and correctly) added that most comfort foods are “. . . usually hearty and often not particularly healthy.” He found that preferences of comfort food change region-to-region and culture-to-culture. Certainly, while boudin and crawfish may be mighty comforting foods for many Louisiana folks, people up East might not find either very appealing.
In February 2020 Sara Lee Corporation conducted a survey to determine what the top ten favorite comfort foods in America were. They found that the ten most popular comfort foods are pizza, burgers, fried chicken (still miss yours, Mom!), French fries, pasta, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, mashed potatoes, chili, and tomato soup.
Comfort Closer to Home
Frankly, some I thought would make the top 10 weren’t there — anything chocolate, for example. I found it hard to believe that not one sweet made the top 10. I decided to do a little survey of my own.
When I asked friends what their “go-to” comfort foods were, I was amused by their answers. Some were anticipated — I knew that sweets had to be in there! Others —like “soupy” grits and pickled herring in cream sauce — were unexpected. I also learned that many things — illness, sadness, family memories, all night study sessions — trigger the need for specific food “comforts”.
Terri Farris loves ice cream, and she is not alone. Dave Grainger (butter pecan, rum raisin, maple walnut — all flavors from his beloved New England), Mary Ann Riddle (remembers any ice cream as a special snack at night when she was a child), and Carolyn Moy (butter pecan, millennium crunch, and chocolate) all love their ice cream!
Sickness changes everything. When Farris is sick, she wants cornbread and sleep (in that order). Daphne McLeod prefers those aforementioned “soupy” grits, especially when her tummy is upset. “Every morning as a kid in Tullos, Louisiana, we had them cold. Sometimes lumpy grits were waiting on a plate on the stovetop with a pat of butter in the middle. Nothing better, and I can see it now!” she says. (In my family, grits also appear — but they are firm and highly seasoned forming the base for grillades and grits or shrimp and grits — two family comfort food favorites.)
Cathy Brown wants Campbell’s Vegetarian Vegetable soup when she is under the weather. She says that her mother always made that for her when she was not feeling well. Kathy Spurlock’s choice is Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup — a classic! Becky Dance says it’s Cream of Wheat for her. “When I was a child, Mama would make it for me whenever I asked for it,” Dance says. Carole Crow’s mom would make her cream of tomato soup and a banana custard — foods that she says were her original comfort foods. Finley Poe and Diane Paschall prefer chicken soup — homemade from scratch! Carol Ransom keeps homemade Matzo ball soup in quart containers in the freezer for whenever the need for comfort strikes her or husband, Burg.
Sometimes comfort foods are associated with family visits to faraway relatives. Lauretta Tucker loves tapioca pudding made with whipped egg whites just like her favorite aunt in New Mexico and grandmother made for her when she visited them. “Whenever I make it, it brings back a flood of memories,” Tucker says. “There is always a box in my pantry. When the pandemic shutdown started, I picked up two extra boxes!”
Jennifer Sweeney’s favorite comfort food is chocolate fudge, and it is all her grandmother’s fault. She remembers one night from her childhood when she and her grandmother were snuggled under down comforters and the rest of the family was fast asleep. Her grandmother suddenly asked her, “If you could have anything you want, right now, what would it be?” Sweeney says in 30 minutes, they were in their nightgowns pouring thick fudge onto a platter and giggling about how much candy they had to eat before morning. Sweeney learned a valuable lesson back then: “Saying ‘yes’ to children when you can, even when they don’t expect it, can lead to priceless memories.”
Cheri Hicks loves coffee, primarily because when her mom made Hicks’ father’s coffee before he went to work, she would make young Hicks a cup, too. “I loved the smell of it, and Mom would make me some a bit bedazzled with milk and sugar.”
Jan Newcomer says that her mouth still waters every time she thinks about a special comfort food that she enjoyed during her college years at ULM. She would have a beef po’boy with extra gravy and French fries from Ray’s PeGe in Lakeshore while cramming all night for a test with fellow students.
Macaroni and cheese and “real” mashed potatoes (you know — made from actual potatoes) were favored by many. Meatballs and pasta (Dana Jefferson wants hers with a side of fried chicken — “Southern Italian”) were often mentioned. Pies of all kinds — chocolate, lemon, coconut, raison, chess, and apple — clearly brought comfort to many. Similarly, banana pudding and cobblers were on many “go-to” lists.
John McQueen favors his grandfather’s favorite “dessert” — a bowl of cornbread and homemade gravy. Miriam Russell loves her grandmother’s dressing and dumplings when she needs a “lift”. Brian Grainger and JB Potts have etouffee on their short list. For others, the simpler the better. Loura Barr’s favorite is peanut butter — on bread, a cracker, or in a spoon.
Defining Comfort Food
Cookbook author and Food Network host Ellie Krieger wrote, “Comfort food is the food that makes us feel good — satisfied, calm, cared for and carefree. It’s food that fills us up both mentally and physically.”
Jessica Smith understands Krieger’s words. There are special comfort foods that make Smith “feel good”, too. Smith remembers her mom’s collard greens and hot water cornbread with love. She says that she has “almost” mastered her mom’s recipe and that making it makes her “. . . feel so good inside and makes my heart smile”.
Maybe in the end that’s the secret to defining exactly what comfort food really is — any food that feels good on the inside and, while it’s at it, makes our hearts smile.