By Bill Taylor
It seems to me that the term “comfort food” is kinda familiar to most folks but when it comes to describing just what comfort food is, a wide variety of options make their appearance. I’m not sure when the term “comfort food” first showed up in our language – one report says it was in 1977 when it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary but others point to a 1966 story in the Palm Beach Post which included the line, “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’ … ”
I guess just when the term became part of our vocabulary doesn’t make much difference except to those scholarly folks who study such things. The core truism of how some foods can produce a feeling of well being has been around for along time – it just hadn’t been given a name.
I got to thinking about this subject the other evening after a particularly trying day – a whole bunch of things had gone wrong and I was really stressed out trying to figure out how to untangle and resolve the mess. As a result I turned to one of my comfort foods – a glass of buttermilk along with some crackers and cheese. The crackers and cheese were kinda incidental but the buttermilk was the key to my finding a bit of solace. It took me back to an incident when I was in my early teens – an incident that proved to be one of the most pleasant ones of my life.
I got a job in a dairy store which sold ice cream, butter and other milk products – including buttermilk. As I was a “newby” on the crew, the other boys figured I was fair game for some “fun” and demanded I drink some buttermilk – which I had never tried before – as part of an “initiation.” I guess they figured forcing me to drink some of that “yucky – looking” stuff would be a good joke. Well, as it turned out I really liked that yucky stuff thereby turning the tables on my would-be tormentors – and to this day buttermilk has been one of my comfort foods.
Ok, moving on. I decided to explore this subject a bit further by inquiring what other folks might consider comfort food. I was fortunate in persuading what amounted to an informal panel of everyday people to share their views. The results were varied but consistent in that the foods all reportedly produced a feeling of well being – a sense of comfort beyond any nutritional value of the food itself. (Folks, these are actual quotes and real first names. Last names are omitted by request.)
Betty started off the discussion by saying that when she gets depressed by the
cold, gray skies and frigid winds of winter she dispels that sad feeling with, “The smell of pot roast with all the veggies around and with a package of onion soup mixed in slowly baking all day and the feeling lasts even until the next day.” She added another quickly made pick-me-up snack with “peanut butter mixed together with ‘Karo’ syrup on crackers.”
Ellen’s offering was simply “macaroni and cheese” with no amplification of how it is fixed – just macaroni and cheese. Barbara, however, was more specific with, “fried potatoes with bacon and onions. Cooked crisp.” She added another favorite, “Sloppy joes made with toasted buns with butter and salt on the top.”
Evie’s favorite turned out to be very simple – “crushed saltine crackers covered with milk” while Dick opted for, “ Turkey and all the fixings including the soup made the next day.” One point everyone agreed on was that homemade soup, apparently regardless of the specific kind, qualifies as “comfort food.”
According to the Miriam -Webster dictionary, comfort food is “ food that is satisfying because it is prepared in a simple or traditional way and reminds you of home, family, or friends.” – but it’s much more than that. As one study puts it, “comfort food’s power may lie in the associations it calls to mind.” This may be food identified with memories of happy occasions or times such as my introduction to buttermilk but such association is apparently not necessary. The essential thing is that comfort food provides a sense of well-being and contentment.
Well, I suppose there may well be as many comfort foods as there are people – my Sweetheart-for-Life prefers a grilled cheese sandwich with the outside brown and crunchy and the cheese on the inside all melted and gooey. My Mom , who was from England, believed a nice hot cup of sweet tea with milk (not cream) was the ultimate comfort food for all occasions – and this brings up an important point.
One person’s comfort food may not be another person’s “cup of tea”, so-to- speak – but you know what? That’s what makes our very own comfort food so special.. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at [email protected]