What is Comfort Food ?

Music – “Comfort Food” from “Coming Home”, Stephanie Jackson


Some people define ‘Comfort Food’ as foods that remind them of home, of their childhood, of good, warm, fuzzy feelings. Do people who had a rotten home life still have comfort foods?

According to Wikipedia, comfort foods may be consumed to positively influence emotions, to relieve negative psychological effects or to increase positive feelings. The term was first used, according to Webster’s Dictionary, in 1977. Interestingly, comfort foods are typically foods with a high sugar or carbohydrate content. Is this content the sole reason these foods comfort us?

Some research suggests that cravings for certain foods are more psychological than physiological. Emotional triggers might contribute, including being lonely or upset or feeling particularly elated. Researchers also note that a bonus of carbohydrates, such as pastries or cake, may actually chemically alter one’s mood. Sometimes we crave comfort foods in times of stress, sometimes when we’re on top of the world. Go figure.

Comfort foods mean many things to different people. I always look at mashed potatoes as comfort food, especially if a little gravy is involved. Perhaps it dates back to my years growing up, when Mom would cook the turkey or the meatloaf, but Dad would always mash the potatoes. It was one of his many kitchen contributions, although he had others (he made a mean Beef Stroganoff and Caesar Salad). He always left a sufficient supply of lumps in the mash…none of this whipped with a beater, wimpy kind of stuff. Lots of real butter, homogenized milk and salt and pepper. Hmmmmm….I can almost smell it now.

In 1996, I worked for several months in Bosnia-Herzegovina, on behalf of the United Nations and ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia). Water for cooking was scarce (see my other blog: Cooking without Water in Bosnia, 1996), and food supplies were limited, but the cook hired to feed our crew did the best she could with what was available.

Several weeks into my sojourn there, I was driving our van to Camp Alicia, the nearby US military base, where we could obtain fuel, place AT & T calls back home and buy a few personal supplies in the PX. While I was there the first time, I happened upon a large truck, which was unloading boxes of MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) for the military stationed there. I asked about them and told the truck driver that I was one of a multi-national, multi-disciplinary crew, working in a makeshift morgue (a bombed out garment factory) about a mile away from the camp, trying to identify the bodies of the dead from the Bosnia wars, which had just ended in December, 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accord. He immediately thanked me and the crew for our work and was more than happy to offer us box after box of MRE’s. We had been accustomed only to a thin sandwich with very mealy tomatoes, prepared by our cook, but there was nothing else available and nowhere to purchase any additional food.

MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), 1996, courtesy of US Army

MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), 1996, courtesy of US Army

I recall driving our van back to the morgue and to the astonished crew’s delight, helping to unload about two dozen cases of MRE’s, courtesy of the US army. There were numerous selections, and over time, each member of our crew had his or her favorite. There was Mac and Cheese, Corned Beef Hash, Beef Stew, Chicken Stew, Scalloped Potatoes with Ham, Tuna with Noodles, Spaghetti, and several others, which I can no longer recall.

Dealing with the horrors of our daily tasks in identifying the dead, one after another, wilting in the initial humid Summer heat and then enduring the watery chill of Autumn, Corned Beef Hash became my comfort food and I raced to grab one each time a new box was opened. Our ‘facility’ had no heat or running water and all of the windows had been destroyed during the war. After heating the package up by adding a few teaspoons of water to the enclosed chemical and metal plate, in a few minutes the meal was toasty and hot and delicious. A bonus after eating were the chemical and metal plates, which still retained some warmth and I would put them in the pockets of my rain jacket. If I was really lucky, I could scrounge an extra plate and have bilateral heating! In those times, a US government issued Corned Beef Hash MRE helped me put things into perspective, gave me a sense of familiarity and warmed my stomach and my soul. THAT was truly comfort food.

Meatloaf with Mashed Potato Frosting

Meatloaf with Mashed Potato Frosting

Comfort foods often vary by season…..Beef Stew and Vegetable Soup may warm your heart and soul in the dead of winter and remind you of being a little kid, coming in from playing outside in the snow, bundled up in multiple layers of sweaters and coats, mittens and scarves, your nose dripping, your boots tracking snow and ice into the house and you looking every bit like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.” Your mom would help you out of your boots and soggy garments, maybe rub your hands to get the circulation going again, and make you a cup of cocoa (with marshmallows please), or a nice hot, steaming cup of soup. That too, was comfort food.

A recent poll conducted on http://www.about.com asked it’s readers about their favorite comfort foods: here is the list:

Peanut Butter and Jelly
Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Mashed Potatoes
Brisket Pot Roast
Fried Chicken
Macaroni and Cheese
Tuna Casserole

I happened on a very brief mention, on the Internet, that a report from the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science suggested that just drawing pictures of comfort foods high in carbohydrates was sufficient enough to elevate mood in the small sample studied. Just think….all of the mood enhancers of comfort food without the calories! No. Just give me a Corned Beef Hash MRE any day, thank you very much.

One summary I located indicated that Apple Pie ranks right up there as a comfort food in Australia, Britain, Canada and the US. Readers, please share your comfort foods from around the globe….we don’t all eat Mac and Cheese, Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches or Corned Beef Hash!

About vintagecookbookery

Cookbook lover and collector with a burgeoning collection of cookbooks. Reading and researching food trends, history of cooking techniques and technological advances in cooking, what we eat and why and cookbooks as reflectors of cultures is a fascination for me. As of November 7th, 2013, I hold the current Guinness World Record title for the largest collection of cookbooks: 2,970 at the official count on July 14th, 2013 (applaud now, thank you very much!) The current (unofficial) number is now 6,500. What next? More shelves?
This entry was posted in Bosnia, Comfort Food, Cookbooks, Cooking, Cooking and Social History, Eating and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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