Tag Archives: comfort food

Variable Neuroses

One of things about food that I most enjoy is trying to recreate the various moments when I “got it”. By “got it”, I mean understanding the essence of a particular food as well as the context in which I enjoyed it. I still recall with stunning clarity the moment when I understood cheese, or the time I had fresh salmon, or the occasion that led to being able to discern the nuances of tea. Everytime I’ve revisited those foods since those epiphanies, I’ve compared my current experiences to those specific moments of my life.

Attaining a level of equal bliss in some experiences has been quite difficult for some foods. Not that this has stopped me from trying, but these difficulties have settled quite nicely into my own ever-expanding fields of neuroses.

Take tacos for example.

Some foodies readily dismiss the taco (and most street food) as either mundane or common or even both. I heartily disagree. I’m of the belief that every food has the opportunity of bringing a level of joy, if even for a moment, that makes the consumer of the food the happiest person on the face of the earth.

For me, tacos can provide that level bliss. But the following variables need to be in place:

  • - The corn tortillas have to be crisp and fresh (flour tortillas are lacking on so many levels)
  • - The beef, ground or otherwise, has to be hot and spicy, not dry and tasteless.
  • - The tomatoes need to be fresh and sweet, not the styrofoam indsutrialized ones that we’ve been seeing of late.
  • - The cheese needs to be sharp and balanced.
  • - The lettuce needs to be crunchy and distinct.
  • - The beer needs to be frosty cold, crisp and lager. The beer, can be optional, but tacos are vastly improved by it.

If all of these items are in place, the first bite of the taco, followed by a quick drink of beer is as equal in sensory ecstasy as a perfectly fried egg or the triumph of a foie gras en terrine au sauternes.

But if one or two of these items are off, then the joy I was looking for never arrives, never even knocks on the door. The tacos then return to the state of being common and mundane, but only because they were created poorly. Herein lies the problem.

When confronted with an opportunity to re-create a moment of bliss, does one risk the many variables needed to get the perfect taste of bliss, or does one try for something new? Often times I opt for the latter. Only if I have faith in the people behind the counter will I dare take that leap for culinary joy.

All of this speaks to my own neurosis. I have no idea if people put this much thought into choosing restaurants or ordering from a menu. But it does cement my belief that all food has that potential for happiness.

What is Comfort Food?

“Comfort Food”, as a phrase, is relatively new to our language. In my search for a clear definition of what defines “comfort food”, I have yet to find anyplace that can explain to me exactly what it is.

Yeah, yeah, at its simplest, “comfort food” is a food that provides comfort. The problem with that definition is that ‘comfort’ is itself a vague term, meaning what provides comfort for one, may make another person shriek in terror. So we have to look beyond the words themselves in order to get a better definition.

Let’s take a quick look at what some folks define as “comfort food”. Wikipedia lists apple pie, baked apples, bread pudding, brownies, chicken noodle soup, chocolate, ice cream, macaroni and cheese, and (heh, heh)scrapple. About.com mentions pizza, doughnuts, chili, enchiladas, Lemon Meringue Pie, Chicken Risotto and rice pudding. Even the upper-end Epicurious.com weighs in, with a slide show of meat loaf, casseroles, and fried chicken (gussied up to meet the standards of those who read Epicurious on a regular basis).

So what can we determine so far? It’s easier to say what it is not rather than what it is. For one, comfort food is not defined by it being an entree or dessert or anywhere else it might sit on a menu. It’s also not defined by any ethnicity.

The clue as to what comfort food is can be found on the epicurious site. The recipes are not just called “Macaroni and Cheese” or “Tapioca Pudding” . Instead they are recipes are titled “Macaroni & Cheese with Garlic Bread Crumbs, Plain & Chipotle” or “Tapioca Pudding With Coconut Cream & Palm-Sugar Syrup.” This is not a bad thing. But it is telling.

From this, I’ve come to a conclusion. “comfort food” is a term that is analogous to the phrase “guilty pleasure”. A guilty pleasure is something that you enjoy that you feel as if you shouldn’t. Comfort food is a food you enjoy but you probably wouldn’t find on a three star restaurant’s menu. In short, “comfort food” is a food you enjoy, but you believe you need to qualify it as somehow worthwhile. As an example: Someone you know says that they eat potato chips on a regular basis. Unqualified, some might look at them and think “What an uneducated palate”. But if they qualify it by saying instead “Potato Chips are my comfort food”, does it change the way we perceive their eating habits? I think it does on some level.

This reminds me of an anecdote.

The late Julia Child was once asked about what foods she considers to be a guilty pleasure. To which she responded something along the lines of “I have never felt guilt over any pleasure that I have had.”

So why do we qualify some meals with the phrase “comfort food”? Do we feel guilty about eating mashed potatoes and fried chicken? Do we need a term which allows us to eat certain foods without a certain measure of guilt?

I’ve been thinking of these questions a fair amount lately, as I’ve been exploring restaurants on the lower economic scale. My own tastes run the gamut of culinary ranges, from sandwiches and french fries to Confit de Cuisse de Canard and Smoked Salmon Ravioli. I feel no need to qualify why I like one food over another.

Calvin Trillin understands this idea implicitly. In his writing, he can sing an ode to BBQ and Spaghetti Carbonara the way that some folks can write about Michelin Stars. Food isn’t more or less spectacular because it has or hasn’t been written about in the pages of Gourmet, Zagat’s or Saveur. A food doesn’t need to be qualified. It just needs to be good.