The case for comfort food

A meal shouldn’t cause stress. It should calm, console, and, yes, comfort.
comfort food

Illustration by Paul Blow

When I was coming up in West Virginia, all food was comfort food. Which is to say the food that graced our dinner table was entirely home cooked, from simple ingredients, made that day. Every dish was familiar. Every meal surprise free. This was less about style than economics.

There was no money, nor inclination, for experimentation, never mind dining in a restaurant. So rare were the occasions when we did go out to eat that I recall everyone being nervous about what to wear and how to act when the waiter came by the table. When he did, my grandmother would smooth her napkin and poke a finger square in my back to jolt me into better posture, as if we were auditioning for a part in a fancier life.

Because of this, restaurants were, to my childhood mind, more trouble than they were worth. Stuffy, with terrible music playing. Music you could not, like the portions, control. And the food—special as it purportedly was—never satisfied like the meals from home. There was always parsley for some reason. Parsley that was meant to signal we were someplace high-end, but really only served to make us feel out of place.

At home, there was no parsley. And I didn’t have to wear starchy dresses that made the back of my thighs itch or pretend I knew what to do with a pepper grinder. Instead, I could sit on a three-legged stool by the sink and watch my grandmother peel carrots with a knife, or boil foamy ham hock stock, or roll flour and lard into pie crust she’d plate in a tin and then blindly pinch between her fingers into perfect, uniform ridges. At home, I observed, and I learned: how to snap beans, how okra felt when it had ripened too tough, how a cake springs back when it’s cooked through.

After the lessons came the eating. Potatoes plopped high into my great-grandfather’s rose-embellished tureen. Bowl upon bowl of salty vegetables. A full stick of butter on a glass plate. A platter of meatloaf ground that day and glazed with sweet tomato sauce. The recipes were generations old, made with straightforward techniques honed just as long. The flavors were soothing because they were familiar, but also because they were part of our culinary lineage.

Such is true with all so-called “comfort food.” We gravitate toward the forthright cuisine of our youth or our heritage not just because we know how it will taste, but because it conjures memories of less isolating times. My mother makes the same beef stew as her mother and her mother before her. And so it is for most family dishes—they become a tether to our shared history, a visceral reminder that we are not alone in this life.

Science bears this out. Research shows when one is lonely, comfort food temporarily alleviates that unpleasant feeling, replacing it with physical and spiritual satiety (as anyone who has ever eaten a plate of fried chicken and greens already knows).

This hunger for food that speaks to the heart is the reason even fine dining joints have for the most part returned to franker fare, largely abandoning the twee touches that nobody ever asked for and replacing them with dishes that grab you by the psyche. It is also the reason there is still a line at Mary Mac’s Tea Room most nights (a restaurant that in 2011 the Georgia House of Representatives officially named “Atlanta’s Dining Room”).

What Mary Mac’s understands that the stiff-upper-lip restaurants of my youth never did is that the point of food isn’t division but community. A meal shouldn’t cause stress. It should calm, console, and, yes, comfort. It’s a lesson my eldest daughter hammered home when she recently returned from school in Vermont for a visit. Before the door had time to shut behind her, she was sitting atop our kitchen counter, pleading for me to make our family’s chicken potpie. When I asked her why, she didn’t hesitate.

“It just makes me feel like everything is okay.”