By Marina Wolf
Comfort food. Just reciting the list of usual suspects--macaroni and cheese, chicken noodle soup, meat loaf--is strangely relaxing, as though in speaking the dishes aloud we invoke their comforting powers. But here's a tip, in case you didn't already know: any food can be comfort food at the right place and time.
The season has something to do with it, for sure. Just the other day, after a hot morning hike in shoes that didn't breathe and socks that collected burs like a stray dog's coat, I sat down to a chunk of watermelon from the fridge. It was an inspired choice, seedless, succulent, and soothing in much the same way as a good chicken soup is on a bad winter's day. They both equalize body temperature, which in extreme weather conditions is a very comforting thing.
But comfort food goes beyond physical needs, into issues of class and culture. Our choices for soothing suppers reveal everything about us. We take with us our culture's choices--miso in Japan, in Germany maybe potato pancakes--and overlay them with family favorites. The qualities may be identifiable and similar from culture to culture--smooth, creamy, hot, savory--but the mix is unique. On an individual level, our choice of comfort food is as changeable as our moods.
True comfort food, whatever its form, meets all the desires and needs we bring to the table at any given moment. After a particularly challenging day at work, I might crave the relief and sheer adolescent self-indulgence implicit in, say, a big glass of tomato juice and a bowlful of cheddarsour cream potato chips (a snack from my teenhood, associated with trashy books and a warm summer's day). Another time, on a long-overdue date with my sweetie, I may be drawn to a melting filet mignon, a smooth velvety morsel that gives me an excuse to shyly offer a bite across the table. This is what psychologists and Oprah call emotional eating, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. On the contrary, these comfort foods represent the body's basic need to soothe itself.
Now, I'm not so messed up that I always need comfort food. But I am always on the lookout, and every once in a while I'll stumble across a new food with real comfort potential. A few years ago, I started a new job 100 miles from home, which necessitated occasional overnight stays at an acquaintance's house. My friend didn't say anything about food, so when I stumbled back after the first day--tired, frustrated, and hungry--I anticipated only a strange bed and an empty stomach.
Instead, my hostess met me at the front door, ushered me into the kitchen, and sliced up a baguette, crusty with sesame and poppy seeds. I sat there on a barstool, blinking like an owl, while she rattled stacks of Tupperware out of the refrigerator and onto the counter. One container held some trout that her husband had caught and smoked himself. Did I want to try some? Another container contained a velvety rind of Cambozola; I'd never heard of it, but sure.
I timidly sliced off a piece of the fragrant cheese, spread it on the bread, and took a bite. All in a rush, my appetite for life came back and settled happily along the sides of my tongue. I wanted to faint, it was so good. The sesame seeds from the bread burst against my teeth. The cheese melted in a flood of saliva. The trout flaked delicately in my fingers. I had never eaten some of these foods before, but tasting them, I recognized them immediately as symbols of care and concern. They were as comforting as my mother's own milk, too comforting for words, or even to say thank you. Until now.
From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.