A Question of Comfort

Tuesday, January 13, 2009 48 comments
Comfort in a bowl

By 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)**
Ask 10 people what their idea of comfort food is and you're likely to receive 10 different responses. Although some foods have become synonymous with comfort on a cultural or national scale (e.g. mac 'n' cheese in the US), it is actually a highly personal preference constructed from the unique experiences, memories and perspectives of each individual. For many, it could be a specific dish like chicken soup; for others, it may be a single ingredient, such as rice, or a certain cooking method like baking.

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

Serves 2


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

To make:

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!


  • Anonymous said...

    This is exactly the kind of comfort food I will need tomorrow when my husband goes to Brazil for a week (and I even have chicken sausages). Today I'm making a nostalgic dinner (will post tomorrow morning).

  • Anonymous said...

    You've hit several nails on the head with that one! I can identify (as I guess we all can in our own particular ways) with comfort food as ultimately being a very personal thing and (without having ever been necessarily concious of it) probably something that I prefer to partake of in solitude at those times when the need for the consoling effect of such food is greatest.

    As to its now being more of a trend proclaimed by gastromonic gurus, I'm mildly sceptical about that (for the very reason that you point out, whereby it is not any one particular food and differs from person to person). If the trend is, in fact, that we are tending towards doing more cooking at home and the cooking that's being done is more rustic than gourmet-style, then, sure, I can well believe that such a trend exists. If that, in turn, means that we're doing more communal dining at home, then I'm all for that, whatever label you put on it!

  • Anonymous said...

    Comfort food for me is kimchee soup - and of course it must be made by mother! It's just not the same when I make it.

    Comfort food for me is also "the stick to your bones" type food - like the mac n cheese you mentioned. Beef stews with potatoes and really good apple pie with vanilla ice cream. Full fat, full flavor, no shortcuts, and no substitutions!

    Comfort foods have a lot to do with the experiences associated with the food. Like for me kimchee soup reminds of my sister and I huddled over the breakfast table (yes, we ate kimchee for breakfast, lunch and dinner!) with my grandmother serving us little wrapped rice with seaweed while we were slurping our soups.

    check out this link...


  • Unknown said...

    I think I might actually be the queen of comfort...why do I have to eat stuff the tastes like crap just because it is healthy..why can't I have healthy and tasty?? Then I saw your recipe..now that looks both healthy and tasty. That is something I will try!

  • Heather said...

    soup, ice cream, red velvet cake and cheese (not together!) are all my favorite comfort foods. there's just something so indulgent about them, it feels like you're really treating yourself.

  • Anonymous said...

    My comfort food, and its hard to narrow down is mom's curried shrimp, or mash pototatoes. Its funny that while I think of them that way, I seldom make them myself. They have special meaning when my mom makes them.

  • Reeni said...

    I have so many comfort foods, mostly of the nostalgic and indulgent kind. Yes, mac 'n' cheese is one, baked ziti, lasagna, stuffed shells, spaghetti and meatballs, cheeseburgers, fettucine alfredo, sausage stuffing... the list goes on and on. Comfort food never left the building, at least for me.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    5 Star - Wishing your husband a safe journey! I look forward to reading about your nostalgic dinner and what foods might help you if you miss him too much.

    Daily Spud - The idea of comfort food as the trend of the year caught my attention precisely because it seemed to be used as a catch-all for the idea of homecooking w/o considering how personalized it really is. Also, by tying 'comfort food' with anxieties about the recession (i.e. worries about money), it implies that such foods cost little when in fact, comfort can be high value in terms of money and time if certain ingredients or cooking methods are integral to the meaning and memory they hold.

    Gastronanthropologist - Thanks for the link! Some of the terms such as freeganism and bistronomics are new to me. I saw common threads of greater nutrition awareness and the simplification of food production w/o sacrificing quality.

    As for your comfort foods, you've exemplified the study's findings: some of your preferences appeal to physical needs ('stick to your bones') while kimchee holds a very specific memory of time, place and people. Thanks for sharing!

    Christine - Just looking at the pix and recipes on your site is my indulgence! I'm trying to work out for myself that we can be healthy and still enjoy treats; if we're lucky, we will find foods that are both.

    Heather - I'm with you on all of those although I'd say I'm an equal opportunity cake eater (I like 'em all!) while I'm more specific about the rest - creamy soups, neapolitan ice cream and grilled cheese sandwiches. I feel so good just thinking about them!

    Oysterculture - I make your mom's recipe but I have to admit I've altered it somewhat for nutritional reasons. It's an example of how one dish can mean different things to two people: that for you, it's a comfort food only if it's made by the special person you associate it with, while for me it's another delicious recipe handed down but subject to change. With that said, your mom's Christmas cookies are something else!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Reeni - Sounds like pasta is your thing, girl! 8-) I have a long list too, but rice is the one I most often turn to; perhaps it's because I'm become more aware of my Filipina identity and it's so central to that cuisine.

  • Chef E said...

    Bravo dear, I love this post and it shows that many of you keep up with your food reading, like we do in this house!

    The soup looks wonderful...I am debating over which comfort food will receive my cherished new saffron gift this week...

    I wish I had a bowl right now!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Chef E - Thank you! I can't wait to here what has been deemed worthy of the saffron. I made a recipe for a saffron-honey cake from the blog From Our Home to Yours, so my vote is for something sweet (even for my fave comfort food, rice, I prefer it in some sort of dessert form like pudding).

    Pigpigscorner - I know what you mean: I'm a carb girl myelf! Sounds like your choices fall under the 'physical comfort' heading - the carbs have a mellowing effect!

  • Lori said...

    What an interesting breakdown of comfort foods. Great post!

    I'm a big fan of potatoes. I love a real german sausage, mashed potatoes and kraut. I often think of the amazing shepherd's pie I had at a pub in Dublin when I think of comfort. Add to that an Irish coffee. Yummy and warm thoughts all around!

  • Anonymous said...

    For me there is nothing that brings me comfort like a perfectly cooked cheeseburger...bacon optional but always appreciated.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Lori - Thanks! If I remember correctly, those German and Irish foods represent your heritage, right? I share your love of Irish coffee - we have a great pub here in Mpls (The Local - honored by Jameson's for being the top seller of their whiskey outside of Ireland) that makes Irish coffee so warm and soothing, you'll fall asleep at the table.

    Tasty Morsel - I was waiting for this classic! When my mother was 16, she spent a year studying in MN as a foreign exchange student. As far as she was concerned, cheeseburgers epitomized America! She loves them to this day (along with milkshakes) and I share that love!

  • Anonymous said...

    That is very true, comfort food has never really left the building, my idea of comfort food is unagi with egg on rice.... mmm ... even a spaghetti bolognese and warm baguette can be at treat!


  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Kang - Ooooohhhh! I loooove unagi! I've had it donburi but not with egg - must find it somewhere. Pasta and bread are definitely my physical comfort foods - a toasted slice of bread slathered with buttered always makes me feel better.

  • Anonymous said...

    Was wondering if you had a chance to take a look at my nostalgic dinner and what you thought :)

    You know what else I like as my simple comfort food is an egg omelet - my dad used to make the best one when I was a child and I love it.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    5 Star - You read my mind! I just left a message on your site about it. A wonderful recipe made even more appealing by the story behind it. I will be forever amazed at how special memories and personal connections can turn even the most humble dish into haute cuisine. By sharing your story, it adds to my experience of Shark Au Poivre b/c now I know that it has special meaning to someone and is not just 'a dish'.

  • Anonymous said...

    Thank you so much! I also love these kinds of dishes that have a story, they are so much more special.

    I've been thinking a lot about your wonderful Comfort food post and it was very very inspirational for me!

  • Maria Verivaki said...

    comfort food is a hard one for me - i am comforted by all kinds of food; just the sight of food is comforting. and the most comforting food of all is the one presented to me and cooked by others...

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Mediterranean Kiwi - Hello and welcome to my site! I understand what you mean which is why, when I saw this term bandied about, the question of 'what is . . . ' came up. It's been fascinating to hear how different it is for everyone and I wonder, is there someone out there who ISN'T comforted by food?

  • Joie de vivre said...

    Thanks for your comment. I am a huge lover of my bread machine as well. I use it a lot and have been putting the insert into the dishwasher to clean it. The part I left out of my post is that I had originally started the challah in the bread machine with the intention that it would do the kneading and rising and I could take it out and braid it and bake it. However when I put the insert into the machine, the mechanism had finally locked up and died. All those runs through the dishwasher had finally done it in. So I had to rescue it then, dump all of the ingredients in a bowl and knead it myself. It wasn't difficult, just more hands on. You CAN do it! Now, do you know where I can get myself a new bread machine insert? Hee hee :)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Duo - It's tricky, though: the study I mentioned noted that most of the specific dishes brought by their subjects also shared the common trait of being high in cals, carbs or fat - all the things that induce pleasant brain chemical reactions but can pack on the pounds. Thanks for reading!

  • Anonymous said...

    I totally agree re: molecular gastronomy stepping aside for comfort food. Now is the time to make those tried-and-true comfort recipes and put the liquid nitrogen experiments (that may or may not work) on hold. Molecular gastronomy is so cool, though! The economy needs to get better, stat.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Cynthia - I regret to say that I know molecular gastronomy by name only: no 'essence of' this or 'foam' of that has ever passed my lips. [Sigh] Missed opportunities . . .

    Recipemashups - I saw that alfredo recipe on your site; you'll have me falling off nutrition wagon with that one! But you're absolutely right - asparagus is a great equalizer.

  • Dewi said...

    Oh looks so comforting indeed. My comfort food will be my chocolate & blackberry torte that I've created myself. I can have more then a slice of this cake, and it will give me such a pleasure and warm felling, especially when I feel down.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Elra - Thank you! And I found your chocolate & blackberry torte recipe - I can see why it's your comfort food!! Of course, I went through your baking archives and spotted so many other wonderful recipes - I look forward to perusing them and your other blog more leisurely!

  • Anonymous said...

    My comfort food pre-pescetarian was a plate of spaghetti with meat sauce. Now, it depends - potato chips, ice cream, or chocolate croissants :)

  • Anonymous said...

    Happy Sunday! I got an award for you at my newest post. And a question - can you share on how you are displaying your awards nicely in a slideshow? Added you to my links too. Thanks!

  • Rico said...

    Love the soup and appreciate you sharing that with us..thx...

    Now I must apologise I was bored and played with your dog in photoshop...if you manna see it go here http://ricardo.candeias27.googlepages.com/dog

    once you've seen it tell me so that I can delete it...

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    5 Star - Thank you so much!! I love it - but I have to say, this one will be a toughie. You've pegged all of my fave blogs, too (great minds and palates think alike)! It may take me a few days but I'll post links. And as for the slideshow, I'd be happy to e-mail info to you - I used Picasa and it was pretty straightforward.

    Ricardo - Thanks! And I loved the doctored photo of Cruise - he's such a goofy pup that your orthodontic makeover suits him!

  • Cris said...

    All right!!! All makes sense now with your categories of comfort food! And I see red rice among your grains of comfort... that's the one we have here TN!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Cris - the rice availability here is really quite small. I was lucky to find this blend. What is red rice like? Is there a specific name for it so I can look it up (and maybe find a place to order)?

    The categories are really fascinating - now, when I think about my favorite comfort foods, I think about which of these themes it falls under!

  • Michele said...

    That soup looks amazing. What brand chicken sausage and rice blend do you use?
    My comfort foods are typically arab food (ie. kofta, lamb, hummus, baba ganoush) or thai food (especially dairy-free green curries)
    I also love pakistani food, but it is hard to find in Alabama

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Michele - Both the sausages and the blend came from Target! The links are a brand called "Al Fresca" and can be found in other groceries; they're a favorite of mine b/c of the natural ingredients. The rice is Target's house brand - Archer Farms 7-Grain Rice Blend. I love all of those arab foods mentioned although I can't have hummus. 8-(

    It's sometimes frustrating living in an area that doesn't have options for a particular cuisine that you enjoy or is part of your heritage. That's my problem with Filipino food which is why I'm embarking on a quest to learn how to cook it properly. Wish me luck!

  • Michele said...

    I had a dear friend in middle school who was half Filipino and her mom made the best pansit noodles. iI'd love to recreate what she made, but I don't know that I could do it justice.
    Thanks for the heads up about the Target stuff!!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Michele - You're welcome! As for making pancit yourself, you're already halfway there: you know how it tastes so you can judge how well you've done! Pancit dishes are quite simple to make although there are several variations. If you do a search on Foodbuzz under 'pancit' or 'pansit' (both spellings are used), you'll find a variety of excellent recipes and photos. I'm planning to post a recipe for one version that has a shrimp sauce but that will not be for a little while.


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