Macaroni and cheese, a staple of so many children's diets, might be the most popular comfort food known to man — or at least any American. The Kraft variety, so carefully split into its essential components — dried pasta, packaged cheese product, and step-by-step directions — makes its way into millions of homes around the country each year. So too does Annie's — little white shells, perky rabbit, and all. And restaurants haven't been shy about serving their own, house-made versions. This country's long-held obsession with the wholesome dish is so great that it has even been cited as a contributor to the steady growth of cheese consumption in the United States.
Macaroni and cheese is popular because it's delicious — the immediate, gustatory pay off of any food centered around starch and cheese should be fairly straightforward. It's also caloric, which carries with it its fair share of delights. But behind its appeal is also a deeper truth you may not realize at all.
Like other dishes referred to endearingly as comfort foods — mashed potatoes, meatloaf and spaghetti in the U.S., kimchi jjigae in Korea and moussaka in Turkey — macaroni and cheese soothes more than simply one's taste buds. Comfort foods in fact reach much deeper into our psyches, all the way back to our childhoods. And there is a subtle science to how, when and why we seek them out.
Comfort foods, you see, are not just a category of foods reserved merely for meals that are unhealthy. They might be comforting because they are often indulgent, sure, but they don't need to be caloric. Take, for instance, chicken noodle soup, which isn't heavy in the least and yet is still an archetypal comfort food.
A new and growing body of research has suggested that certain foods resonate with us not just because we enjoyed them in our youth, but because of our feelings toward the people -- often moms and dads -- who gave us the food.
"If your mom makes something when you're a child, that food becomes associated with the care she gave you at the time," said Shira Gabriel, a professor at the University at Buffalo who has been researching the social and emotional ties to food consumption. "If the care was good, the association will be good too. It's about more than just the food."
Gabriel has been studying the social and emotional associations of foods for years. Her latest research, a new study published last week, shows that people not only seek out comfort foods when they're feeling down or socially disconnected, but actually tend to enjoy them more when feeling isolated or sad. What's more, it builds on the notion that our love for certain foods is an extension of our feelings towards certain people — often those who served them to us when we were young.
In one experiment, Gabriel and her team tracked a group of almost 100 participants over the course of two weeks by asking them to document their feelings and eating habits in a diary. What they found is that people who had positive associations with their caregivers (i.e. their parents) tended to seek out comfort foods more often when feeling down or socially disconnected.
In another, the researchers split the group into two parts — half of the participants were reminded of a time that they were lonely or isolated, while the other half were not. Everyone was then served potato chips. Gabriel and her colleagues found that participants who were forced to revisit feelings of loneliness and feel isolation tended to report enjoying the chips more.
In both cases, it was apparent that the strength of participants' relationships with the people who looked after them when they were young had influenced how they responded to comfort foods. Those who reported feeling secure about their caregivers sought out comfort foods when they felt lonely, and enjoyed them more too. Those who didn't, meanwhile, did not.
"Comfort food is especially appealing when we're lonely," said Gabriel. "But if you didn't really get along with your parents, these sorts of foods probably aren't going to make you feel better."
In 2011, Gabriel, along with colleague Jordan Troisi, found that people tend to seek out soup when they feel lonely.
Soup, Gabriel says, is actually a perfect example of how the existence of a strong emotional tie to a person can liven the experience of an otherwise forgettable meal. Soup can carry with it memories of being sick and therefore being cared for when young.
For that reason we might romanticize the act of warming up with a bowl when it's cold out or, better yet, when we're sick. Sipping a bowl of broth and noodles then wraps a figurative blanket around us, even though that blanket might have been donated along with other relics of our childhood to the Salvation Army years ago.
"You don't think 'I'm having mac and cheese today because I'm feeling lonely and I need my mom,'" said Gabriel. "But that's actually part of what's happening."
Comfort foods, of course, aren't simply the sorts of heart-warming meals had in the United States — they vary widely from country to country. In Korea, one might be likelier to form an emotional attachment to kimchi than mashed potatoes; in Morocco, the tie might be stronger to tagine; in India, hearts could be closer to certain curries. But no matter the culture, or dish that warms people the most, the personal connection remains.
The next time you find yourself sitting over a meal that makes you feel at home, you might want to give mom, or dad, or whoever made or served you that meal when you were young a call.