The Meaning of ‘Comfort Food’

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Experiences such as gathering and processing the ingredients, making the dishes, and sharing of meals with loved ones play an important role in creating comfort food.
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“Comfort Food Cookbook” by Karen K. Will features 230 comfort-food recipes you can use for any meal.

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.

The processed food industry has taken full advantage of our physiological cravings. It calculates a bliss point for most processed foods. That is a point at which more or less sugar, fat, or salt will make us avoid another helping. Moss contends, with scientific backing, that some aspects of food are potentially addicting. And he says that the processed food industry knows that well.

The problem is not so much that we are physio­logically and psychologically predisposed to consume certain foods as it is that profiteers use that information to sell us as much as they can — to the detriment of our collective health. But comfort food is not the culprit here.

True comfort food is not formulated to tickle your bliss point, nor is it intrinsi­cally unhealthy. Rather, comfort food is wonderfully delicious and nutritious.

Comfort food is real food. That’s food made from scratch using as many whole ingredients as possible. There’s nothing so wholesome as whole milk and cream (unless you are allergic to them). Butter, lard, cold-pressed olive oil, coconut oil, and other unadulterated fats are key — steamed asparagus with butter, salt, and pepper is about as comforting as it gets in early spring. Comfort food makes use of real sweeteners such as sugar, honey, and molasses as needed. Whole grains, fruits, nuts, legumes, fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, meats, seafood, and fish are all part of the comfort food canon. And finally, the emotionally uplifting experiences surrounding the growing, gather­ing, and processing of ingredients; the making of the dishes; and the sharing of meals all play an important role in creating comfort food.

Grit has celebrated comfort food in its various forms for more than 130 years. The magazine currently devotes many pages of each issue to the sharing of comfort food recipes. We also have a number of recipe-related newsletters, special issues, and websites devoted to high-quality, from-scratch cooking. We’ve been at it so long that we even have a computer database that contains thousands of comfort food recipes — alongside thousands more in hard copy.

In this book, we celebrate comfort food through recipes gleaned from our archives, current readers, staff members, friends, and family. It offers but a small sample of the treasures, but we think these are the best of the best.

Buy this book from our store:Comfort Food Cookbook

Excerpted from Comfort Food Cookbook (Voyageur Press, 2014), by Karen K. Will. used with permission from Voyageur Press, © 2014.