A box of Kleenex, a warm quilt and a bowl of chicken soup. That’s what comfort food means to me.
But I’m not everyone. For others, comfort food might just as easily be a chilled bowl of ice cream as a hot bowl of soup. Mashed potatoes are a natural. So are meatballs, rice pudding and applesauce. When I started thinking about it again recently, it took no time at all to list 75 possibilities. I asked a couple of my grandchildren their thoughts, and although they had never heard the term, they could easily guess its meaning. “Soft and sweet,” said Kirk, age 8, who assumes that every food he’d be emotionally attached to would be sweet. He was right about the “soft” and close with the “sweet.”
Every culture has its comfort foods; in ours, they are most commonly what is otherwise known as nursery food: Jell-O, custard, oatmeal without lumps. In addition to being soft, their color is neutral, and most likely they are basically a starch. (What can out-comfort chocolate pudding or tapioca?) Everything about comfort food is soothing. The varieties of softness may range from silky to creamy to fluffy. Supporting that idea, most comfort foods require little chewing and are bland enough to leave your taste buds asleep. That leaves Thai food and Indian food behind, at least for many Americans. Still, every comfort food rule has an exception, which explains chili.
I once conducted a survey of what people ate when they woke up in the middle of the night. (As I’d expected, nearly everyone did eat when they awoke.) The overwhelming majority ate ice cream. A few ascetics drank warm milk. Almost all believed that the tryptophan, serotonin or melatonin in their milk helped them go back to sleep. That hasn’t been proved, but the belief itself is effective.
To get a more professional view on the subject, I asked a chef about comfort food. David Scribner, who has five young children (plus a busy restaurant, Surfside, in Glover Park, and four Jetties sandwich shops), undoubtedly has a great need for it. But it wasn’t the need that he addressed. “Restraint,” he said, repeating it a couple of times. What he meant is that comfort food is not an expression of a chef’s personality. Quite the opposite. A chef must set aside personal expressions; comfort food is meant to be universal, the simplest and plainest of recipes, food with no individuality added.
When you veer from the straight and narrow, you’ll find subcategories of comfort food, and exceptions to that rule about nursery food. The smooth puree edges into the creamy: chicken potpie or tuna noodle casserole. Those segue into soft meats: chicken, meatloaf, meatballs. Chocolate is its own category.
And then there is crispness, Americans’ most beloved of textures. Potato chips, fried chicken, Oreos. Despite their noisiness and chewing requirements, to leave them out would be un-American.
So what we are talking about here is food that is quiet in its mood, its effect and its impact, even when it crunches rather loudly. It might be considered an antidote to modernist, post-modernist and especially molecular gastronomy. It is beloved food, food that makes us feel good. If we hadn’t come across it, we would have had to invent it.
Which is what I did, they say.
I don’t really believe I created the term, but the Oxford English Dictionary and some Webster’s dictionaries give me credit. They attribute the first print mention of “comfort food” to an article in the Washington Post Magazine in 1977. I wrote that article. I used the term to describe shrimp and grits. Since then — if not before — it has been one of my favorite food descriptors.
Naturally, I was delighted to be asked to write about comfort food again, 36 years after that 1977 introduction. But I didn’t want to just repeat myself. Perhaps I could write about the opposite. I could include beans and apricot kernels, with their gastric discomforts; shad fish, with all its tiny bones to choke on. Fugu, that potentially poisonous fish, came to mind. Discomfort Food, I’d call it: a Christmas guide for Scrooge.
Then again, maybe I should just order an emergency bowl of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Richman was a restaurant critic for The Washington Post from 1976 to 2000. She is the author of three food mysteries and many dining books.