The Meaning of ‘Comfort Food’

Read how the definition of comfort food has changed over time.

| January 2018

Comfort Food Cookbook: 230 Recipes for Bringing Classic Good Food to the Table (Voyageur Press, 2014), by Karen K. Will is a collection of  230 recipes from the archives of GRIT Magazine. Cook old-fashioned comfort food recipes for every meal by following these delicious and simple recipes. The following excerpt is from the "Introduction."

You can buy this book from the GRIT store: Comfort Food Cookbook

There was a time when comfort food didn't exist. I don't mean to say that folks didn't enjoy certain dishes or that certain dishes didn't elicit happy, warm feelings. I mean that once upon a time food was food. Good food was really good, and in many cases it was also comforting — both physically and psychologically. I'm quite sure that the stacks and stacks of flapjacks Royal and Almanzo Wilder consumed in Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter were indeed a form of comfort food. My goodness, those boys could pack them away. Good thing they could, because they needed all the energy they could get to survive those many subzero days and nights.

There is no doubt that Almanzo Wilder enjoyed what we call comfort food while he was growing up, too. In Farmer Boy, many of Almanzo's daily childhood adventures are punctuated with fantas­tic farm-table fare. Certain items, such as pies of various types and roasted meat, so captivated the hard-working and growing boy that he would sometimes daydream about them while working all morning, anticipating the noontime dinner bell. Obviously Almanzo needed the calories, but he also craved some foods because they comforted him psychologically. There was nothing like coming in from evening chores to a supper sandwich topped off with Mom's warm apple pie.

But I don't think the Wilder boys thought about food the way we do today, in twenty-first-century categories. In modern times, some characterize comfort food as food that's high in sugar — that gives a sugar rush, if you will, eliciting a comfort­ing response and stoking our desire for it. Others say comfort foods are the high-carbohydrate dishes that we crave when things look a little gray outside and blue inside our own heads. Like sweets, carbs offer a euphoric spike in blood sugar, often followed by a drowsy crash. Still others suggest that comfort food is food that's high in fat calories — and guaranteed to make us feel warm when it's cold outside. Psychologists suggest that comfort food is that which elicits a warm, positive memory. It needn't be warm; it could actually be something cold that you made with your dad on a hot summer day, like ice cream.

Michael Moss explains in his 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat how the twenty-first-century human became addicted to food. The whole thing harks back to when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. They really needed to consume mega calories and pack on the pounds, just to get the work of living accomplished and to survive lean times on their bodies' reserves. When our ancestors encountered certain high-value foods, the body's message was: consume all you can. We are still geneti­cally predisposed to crave those types of foods.

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