Comfort in a bowlBy now, you must have heard the news: comfort food has kicked molecular gastronomy to the curb.
Prognosticating the food trends of 2009, countless articles ranging from PRNewswire and TheStreet.com to an excellent synopsis by Filipina blogger Alex at The Picky Pescetarian, all tout the home kitchen as the new sanctuary from the global economic wilderness now confronting us. Focusing on simplicity and value, the emergent home cook will trump celebrity chefs in creating satisfying and soothing meals with basic less-expensive staples, locally-sourced meats and produce, and an adherence to a 'waste not, want not' ethos. Thus, the Year of Comfort Food is in the house.
But as LouAnn at Oyster Food and Culture observed, it never really left the building. Its power to help lift our spirits during times of stress and other low moods has always been close at hand and only now grabs the culinary spotlight because of the collective anxiety engendered by current events. And yet, while opinion leaders anoint this 'new' trend, few of them have offered an answer to a basic question: what exactly is comfort food?
|(Photo credit: Cherrypatter/Flickr)**|
In an attempt to qualify the concept of comfort foods, Julie Locher and her colleagues at the University of Alabama - Birmingham published a 2005 study, "Comfort Food: an Exploratory Journey into the Social and Emotional Significance of Food", in the journal Food & Foodways (13:273-97). They found that such comestibles could be categorized under four general themes:
Nostalgic foods are connected to specific times or events (often in childhood), are associated with culture, family and self-identity, and arouses a strong sense of sharing and of being cared for.
Indulgence foods are linked to pleasure, motivation, reward and even guilt (they're more expensive or have rich - i.e. high calorie - ingredients). They're also associated with the opposite sex and special occasions - think chocolates truffles for Valentine's Day.
Convenience foods are immediate gratification - we may prefer a from-scratch dish but home delivery or pre-packaged is just fine. It may also symbolize a generation gap: such items are likely to be named as comfort food by younger people.
Physical comfort foods affect the mind and mood by affecting the body first and are most often associated with textures. Soft and smooth dishes like puddings and ice cream require little effort to consume; warm foods like soups and stews give a cozy, comfortable feeling; and crunchy, chewy comestibles may actually relieve stress.
In a nutshell, comfort food can be just about any edible that is deeply familiar, evokes memories of special events and people, and has the power to console and uplift us in times of need. But Locher et al. also identified a surprising characteristic that is common to all comfort foods: they are almost always eaten in solitude. As Locher observes,
"Because others do not share our memories associated with a chosen comfort food item, their presence may interfere with the function of the food to relieve our distress."This criterion is at odds with what the gastronomic gurus say is the reason for the comfort food trend: re-focusing on family and community ties to help us survive today's economic turmoils. Or is it? Perhaps the reason that food trend forecasters do not offer specifics on what constitutes comfort food is because it's not really about a particular dish, cuisine or method at all. A particular food may hold deep meaning for just one person at the table but it is the very act of commensality - the sharing of that dish and others with dear family and special friends - that provides the greatest comfort. If this is indeed the trend that is actually meant, then sign me up! Food shared in happy companionship is indeed a dish that's best served warm.
**Updated 3/15/2012: In the original post published on 1/13/09, I used a photograph which I credited to the source but did not actually have permission from the photographer to use. The new photo that replaces it above is used under a Creative Commons license.
Comfort Trend Soup
I've called it this because it incorporates key themes mentioned in those food trend forecasts: it contains a basic pantry staple which also happens to be my favorite comfort food (rice), locally-grown produce (zucchini from my garden), the use of leftovers (chicken sausages from a previous dinner), and a value ingredient (organic chicken broth in a box). And of course, it sates the appetite and soothes the spirit.
Grains of comfort
1/3 cup brown rice (I used a 7-grain blend)
1 cup water
1 Tbsp canola oil
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 bell pepper, diced
2 cups shredded zucchini
1/2 tsp each of dried basil, oregano, thyme and rosemary
32 oz chicken broth
2 pre-cooked chicken sausage links, sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
1) In a small pot, add rice to 1 cup of water and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and let simmer for 20 minutes. Rice will still be firm; drain and set aside.
2) In a medium pot, sauté onions in oil until soft; add bell pepper and cook until soft.
3) Add zucchini, semi-cooked rice and herbs. Stir well.
4) Add chicken broth, cover and bring to a boil; lower heat and let simmer, partially covered, until rice is fully cooked.
5) Add sliced sausages and heat through. Serve hot.
Comfort in a bowl . . . soon to be in the tummy!What's your comfort food and why? I'd love to hear about it!