“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.