Are you eating comfortably?

Why are comfort foods so comforting?

Food
Ultimate comfort or a load of tripe? İşkembe çorbası (Turkish tripe soup) (©BIN IM GARTEN CC BY-SA 3.0)

It’s the season for comfort food, for feeling insulated from cold and proof against the winter darkness: the nights are drawing in — they’ve been drawing in since June 21 but it’s unkind to mention it too early in the year — and the food sites I subscribe to keep sending me emails headed “50 Cosy Comfort Food Recipes” or “50 Fall Recipes More Comforting Than Soup”. Inevitably the recipes are for things soft-textured, soupy, starchy, creamy, cheesy. The words used seem designed for search-engine optimisation: classic cosy fall pumpkin spice comforting grilled cheese pie doesn’t exist, but easily could.

If you ask someone what they consider comfort food the answer is always something from their childhood: spaghetti bolognese, macaroni cheese. I remember my mother’s very mild and uncomplicated chicken soup with rice — chicken broth, rice, shreds of leftover chicken.

It occasionally feels ceremonial. “Of course, with chicken soup, you have to sing the song,” said my sister, meaning the song written by Carole King — yes, that Carole King, the one who wrote You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman) — for the 1970s animation of the Maurice Sendak book Chicken Soup with Rice; remembering watching this on VHS is a voyage into nostalgia in itself. (“I told you once, I told you twice/All seasons of the year are nice/For eating chicken soup/Eating chicken soup with rice.”)

The editor of this magazine remembers, as a child, being given white toast with butter at a friend’s house. My cousin described his mother’s risotto, made with chicken stock, scraps from the chicken carcass, pancetta and mushrooms: “Greasy, carby, meaty, filling, umami, delicious.” He said he’d never make it himself, unless someone asked him to; it was comforting because someone else had made it for him.

Comfort clearly isn’t the same for everyone. I’m actively discomfited by macaroni cheese (the smell! the texture!) and am not wild about pizza. Two people I spoke to don’t like soup, the archetypal comforting liquid: “It’s just the same all the way through,” said one. An American friend overwhelmed with nostalgia once made me eat a corn dog (a hot dog wrapped in sweet cornbread, on a stick) — I really didn’t understand the appeal of it.

 As a child in Istanbul I ate mercimek, red lentil soup, and sort of hated it; as an adult I find it powerfully nostalgic because it tastes so typically Turkish (chilli, dried mint, lemon juice). I feel the same about packet-mix chocolate pudding (çikolata puding), which was similarly ubiquitous.

In a 2015 article for the Atlantic, Cari Romm tracked the term “comfort food” back to a 1965 article on obesity in the Palm Beach Post: “Sad Child May Overeat”, which defines it as “food associated with the security of childhood” which adults turn to in times of “severe emotional stress”. Judith Olney’s 1979 book Comforting Foods (republished recently) offers a gentler take: “the foods are more humble than prevailing style might dictate; they are old-fashioned . . . The gentle, simple foods that feed the body and the soul are those that have triumphed and endured from the past, that are with us still, and that will be when we are no more.” She lists egg dishes, apple dishes, warming, starchy foods, “hot cereals”. Grandmothers are mentioned.  Comforting food is “deep and thick and rich. It’s golden and speckled, and whole and juicy.” These are dishes which feel as if they have never changed, which are essentially humble and relatively economical. They aren’t difficult to make, but they can be time-consuming — making stock, baking in ovens for hours, slow-cooking.

This doesn’t mean they work. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found, in a 2014 study (“The Myth of Comfort Food”), that the feeling of wellbeing people ascribed to certain foods was illusory: comfort foods improved mood but no more than any other food. So is all food comfort food? If you get hungry you get cranky, frustrated; as soon as you eat something (anything) your mood improves. Our brains release dopamine — the reward chemical — to congratulate us. And certain milk proteins, called casomorphins, bind to opioid receptors in the brain, which is not the same as being an opiate, but may explain why people find cheese so delicious.

But getting the “comfort” isn’t just a matter of informing your brain you’ve done something necessary for survival. The emotional boost is more elusive — you like it because your grandmother made it, or your mother when you were ill, or it was something you could make yourself that was easy — packet noodles, toasted cheese sandwiches, bread and jam. It wasn’t “good for you”. Green vegetables don’t get to be “comfort food” — probably because to children they taste bitter. Fruit peeled and cut up by someone else might make an appearance.

Remembering it is better than making it again. It’s hard to imagine someone’s comfort food being Turkish tripe soup (see above) or îles flottantes (poached meringue) or artichokes with vinaigrette but as soon as you come up with an emotional backstory you can imagine it: perhaps your grandfather took you into the field or the kitchen garden to pick some artichokes which you steamed and ate with melted butter. Perhaps you had îles flottantes on a rainy day in a French seaside town on a disappointing holiday — the involuntary, Proustian model.

To paraphrase the sitcom Community, people can have feelings about anything: “I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve, [break it in two], and part of you dies just a little . . . We can sympathise with a pencil.” Humans are emotional, therefore food is emotional.