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A Taste Of Comfort

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“I always thought build-your-own taco night was the kind of thing reserved for culinary geniuses and my mom…oh, and pancakes.”

Across the river from a shuttered New York City, tacos and pancakes were two dishes attempted for the first time by a friend who, by his own admission, cooked more in the last twelve months than he had in the twelve years prior. More than one birthday dinner prepared by his very patient mother featured both. Yes, at the same time. I asked.

Another friend, who was living in Israel during the country’s first lockdown, relayed that while she was under orders not to venture out for anything beyond necessities, she “CRAVED” the chicken parm her dad used to make for the family when her brother would come home from college for visits, challenging the definition of “necessity” in extraordinary times.

“I made a good bit of cheesesteaks,” James, a former chef and native New Jersian, now a Mainer by way of Baltimore, told me. He was sure to be clear, though, that the gold standard he spent hours trying to recreate was that of Mama’s Pizzeria, where we used to order growing up and not the spray-cheese monstrosities franchised out to airports and casinos.

In regard to the stuffed grape leaves, hand-rolled in Philadelphia by a close friend’s wife, she made them, “because I’m Lebanese, and I wanted to get back to my roots.” She ate them growing up when her grandmother would make a batch to freeze and send home with her mother, and now she felt compelled to make them for her family.

Personally, near the beginning of April, I had managed to score a really beautifully marbled chuck roast, a treasure I squirreled away in the back of the freezer, and earmarked it for my best attempt at my mom’s pot roast. On parents’ weekend of my freshman year of college, upon my request, my dad packed a cooler with ice to keep four large Tupperware of it cold during the drive out, because while Pittsburgh certainly didn’t lack for hearty meat dishes, none were my mom’s pot roast.

There’s no question that over the course of the last year, we’ve all found ourselves, both consciously and unconsciously, searching for comfort wherever and whenever it can be found. But it seems as though it’s the palliative effects of a favorite dish that, in the absence of actually getting to share it with loved ones, stands the best chance at soothing us. Why though? What is it about so-called “comfort food” that satiates that within us that often wouldn’t be described as hunger at all? At least not in the physical sense.

In her 1990 exploration of sensory phenomena, A Natural History of the Senses, poet Diane Ackerman reinforces the long-held belief that humans perceive taste depending on whereupon the tongue we detect it – sweet at the tip, bitter in the back, sour on the sides, and salty throughout. Unfortunately, the idea of the “tongue map” has long been debunked according to an article in Smithsonian magazine.

I say “unfortunately” because I generally enjoy the idea of a clearly delineated topographical representation of the tongue, as though it’s impossible to truly dislike a taste, only to take a wrong turn at certain papillae and wind up “lost.” If, on the other hand, there was actually some validity to these flavor neighborhoods, it would beg the question, where on the tongue do we detect comfort? How would that even work?

It wouldn’t. That’s because the pacifying effects of comfort food take place primarily in the brain and have more to do with memories, bordering on nostalgia, than they do with anything physiological. Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, argues in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science that, “comfort foods actually work by alleviating social isolation…rather than by improving mood.”

At this point take a moment to think back over the course of the past year or so to see if you can recall anything that could reasonably qualify as a period of “social isolation” and whether or not it coincided with any sudden, all-encompassing desires to nosh like a feral raccoon on what you consider to be your particular comfort food. Yeah, I think I have one that sticks out as well…

Spence’s article points to two defining characteristics of comfort food: favorites dishes from our childhoods, often those passed down to our parents from our grandparents, and any dish that, “brings back positive associations of early social interaction.” Taken together, comfort food is family history - either the one you’re born into or the one you choose for yourself - recalled on a plate, or in a bowl, or in a single bite. We crave the foods that pair with the best memories.

In season one of chef David Chang’s docuseries Ugly Delicious, he devotes an entire episode to “home cooking,” wherein Chang invites friend and cookbook author Peter Meehan to accompany him to his mother’s house in Virginia for the most comforting of all gastronomic revelries, Thanksgiving. Home cooking, full of family recipes and bastardized versions of things we ate as kids, is unequivocally the domain of comfort food, and Chang spends the majority of the episode preparing for his buddy, Meehan, the Korean dishes he learned at his mother and his grandmother’s feet as well as the traditional Thanksgiving “white people food” of his family’s adopted Virginia, both with equal care and exuberance. 

More than simply a gifted chef, Chang is an enthusiastic one, and it becomes clear that his enthusiasm was born in the kitchen with his women in family. He recalls, fondly, his earliest memories, hanging on his grandmother’s back, watching her cook, and remarks that “when I associate food and love, that’s the kind of food that makes me happy.” He doesn’t highlight a particular spice or an ingredient when he waxes nostalgic over his favorite meals. It’s the memories and the associations he’s created with certain dishes that bring him comfort.

Of course, this doesn’t tell the whole story, but it does tell a compelling one. We don’t seek comfort strictly when we’re lonely. Grief, guilt, fear, even pride might be just as likely to trigger a craving for a soothing dish, but what remains constant is what we’re actually craving in those moments: memories. We know that memories aren’t composed solely of the images of an event. Somewhere, our brains store all of the sensory inputs that comprise any moment: sight, smell, taste, and so on. All of this forms a more complete memory for us to recall later, and when that memory is a good one, one we need in times of struggle and isolation, we’re more than happy to find it in front of us, on the table, where we’ve found it before.