In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, restaurants reported that guests came in seeking mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and homey soups. A Nielsen survey at the time found the same thing happening at grocery stores, with Americans stocking up on chips, instant potatoes and the like.
Sylvia Lovegren reported something similar as the economy caved in the early ’90s. In her book Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads she references a return to meatloaf, pasta casseroles, lasagna and even Jell-O salads.
This is the food of comfort, the dishes we crave when we want to bask in the warmth of familiarity. Michelle Brooks of Michelle’s Soul Food Kitchen in Seaside describes it as the stuff of home and hearth, of family and, well, heft.
“Right when you eat it you have to go to sleep—that’s comfort,” she says. “Your eyes get heavy. ‘You have the eye-tis.’ My mom used to say that.”
So this week’s Burning Question should be both easy and peasy. Comfort food is pretty simple to define, right? Roast chicken falls into the category, as does chili. burgers, the classic tuna melt, chicken soup, beef on weck, goetta, soncocho, bierock, frogmore st…
What the hell just happened? Soncocho? Bierock?
Yeah, bierock. Find yourself driving around the outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska—it can happen—and there are dozens of restaurants devoted to the meat pocket. Except in Nebraska they call them runzas.
Great. Turns out the definition of comfort foods in the U.S. varies wildly. Where a person lives and where they grew up comes into play. It can be influenced by nationality and religion, by generation, by your neighbors—maybe they introduce you to katsu, birria, pho, chicken fried steak or Chicago-style pizza—and many other factors.
Why is this stuff always so convoluted? Can’t we have a Burning Question like “Does beer have alcohol?” Yes it does. Done. Now time to hit the bar for a few...Damn. The editor is watching, and she has this thing about “work hours.”
OK—to illustrate the extent of the problem, Thrillist once attempted to file a list of favorite comfort foods by state. It was all over the map—see what I did there?—and in most cases open to debate. Yes, crab cakes are a Maryland favorite. And New England-style clam chowder belongs to Massachusetts, no matter how hard Monterey tries to claim it as a defining dish. Pork tenderloin is popular in Indiana and other parts of the Midwest. In Nevada, buffet lines rule—which seems about right.
But they apply San Diego’s fish taco craze to the entire state of California. Same for Illinois, all of which apparently loves diving into deep dish pizza peculiar to Chicago. And while Thrillist gives Hawaii’s comfort food title to the moco loco, one could make an argument for spam musubi. Hell, Hawaiians empty something like seven million cans of Spam a year. It’s fried cheese curds for Wisconsin, which is not a bad call. But almost every cheddarhead tailgate involves brats in beer.
And there are those pesky comfort food micro-regions to consider. It’s hard to find beef on weck outside of Buffalo—which is odd, given the city’s track record with wings. Soncocho is popular in Puerto Rico.
Some—well, one person really—may be shocked to find that it’s part of the U.S. and not one of those Mexican countries.
Restaurants cater to our comfort food cravings. Chef Jonny Black at Sierra Mar in Big Sur features fried chicken and corn bread. At Monterey’s Montrio Bistro, chef Justin Robarge serves mac and cheese, as well as poutine. It’s possible to find deviled eggs and corn dogs at Fabrice Roux’s namesake Roux in Carmel Valley.
He can’t help put add truffles to the eggs and use chorizo in place of the hot dog, but it still counts.
Aloha Hawaiian BBQ in Salinas offers both loco moco and Spam musubi. And guess what? There’s birria at Birrieria & Restaurant Estillo Coalcoman in Castroville.
But some of the regional favorites can be difficult to track down. You have to drive to Fresno for bierock. If you have a hankerin’ for a loose meat sandwich (that’s a Midwestern thing), a pork roll (any exit off the New Jersey Turnpike), a jucy lucy (Minnesota) or funeral potatoes (Utah—don’t ask), it may take some looking around.
So where are we at? Oh, yeah. There’s no universal agreement on comfort foods themselves. But we can at least agree that comfort foods are hearty. Like Brooks says, they give you the eye-tis.
Not so fast.
Psychologists Jordan D. Troisi and Julian W.C. Wright published a study in the journal Teaching of Psychology warning that we oversimplify the concept. Their 2016 research intended to “correct these misrepresentations by describing how comfort food serves as a social surrogate and as a cognitive/emotional representation of others.” Hey, the one guy has two middle initials, so the study carries some weight.
A University of Minnesota report published in Health Psychology found no difference in mood swings when subjects were fed comfort foods, almonds or bland granola bars. Kelly Brownell, who researches obesity—yeah, probably shouldn’t have ended the last paragraph with “weight”—at Duke University agreed in a New York Times piece that “The assignment of the word ‘comfort’ to these foods implies that there is a relationship between ‘comfort’ and ‘food’ that may not exist.”
Leave it to the folks in lab coats to make things difficult.
So just what is comfort food? It seems there’s a lot we don’t quite get. Some refer to matzo ball soup as “Jewish penicillin.” Others apply the same phrase to chicken soup. Hell, people can’t even decide when “comfort food” first became a thing.
Dictionaries—notably the authoritative Oxford English and Mirriam Webster—began listing comfort food in their pages in 1997. It comes just before “comfort station” (i.e. public restroom, which is somehow fitting) in the only old fashioned hard copy dictionary in our luxurious marble tile newsroom, but that’s the American Heritage Dictionary.
The Oxford English dictionary credited a 1977 Washington Post magazine article for first employing the term, in a piece on Southern cooking. The historic moment? “Along with grits, one of the comfort foods of the South is black-eyed peas.”
But comfort food scholars—yes, they exist; check out John T. Edge’s definitive Fried Chicken: An American Story—found an earlier reference in a 1966 Palm Beach Post piece. The real history first is “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food.’” The story went on to categorize comfort food as those dishes “associated with the security of childhood.”
Ah, but perhaps we’ve dismissed the Washington Post too quickly. Here’s something from a 1965 items titled “Keep in Trim” that comes close: “When trouble crops up, you turn to food for comfort.” And a 1966 display ad for the The Thin Book by a Formerly Fat Psychiatrist found in the Chicago Tribune promised one could “lose weight with the help of comfort foods.”
What is it with psychiatrists and their fixation on diet?
How about we turn to the American Heritage Dictionary for guidance. Let’s see…there it is. Comfort food is a noun, so we’ve established something already. The definition reads “Easily prepared plain food, such as macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, or puddings, sometimes prepackaged.”
Easily prepared? Plain food? Clearly the word nerds haven’t tried bibimbap, chili or those sturdy, multi-layered Midwestern casseroles.
Hmm—did you know “comfrey” means “any of various hairy perennial Eurasian herbs of the genus Symphytum? Sometimes these books can be useful.
So what does the scorecard look like? Comfort food can be just about anything, but is often associated with a person’s location or roots. A person or region may claim many foods. In Texas, for instance, barbecued brisket, red chili and chicken fried steak prevail. They can be shared. Oklahoma also claims chicken fried steak. And as the author of Fried Chicken pointed in a 2018 JetSetter article, chicken and waffles was once purely a Southern dish but has now become a national phenomenon.
Comfort food is subject to the cultural melting pot, as well. Spaghetti and meatballs includes Italian ingredients, but is not found in Italy. They can occur by accident. Supposedly St. Louis became hooked on toasted ravioli after a cook somehow mistook a vat of hot oil for water. They can be peculiar to a state, like the pepperoni roll in West Virginia, or a small region—Cincinnati chili or Rochester, New York’s garbage plate.
But as for what makes them particularly comforting? Yep, back to the scientists. Psychologists—always psychologists—at the State University of New York, Buffalo and the University of the South decided comfort foods have a social aspect. They reached this conclusion after tormenting some volunteers (in science they call it running experiments) to determine their attachment style.
Maybe it will make more sense if we take a glance at the abstract for their 2015 report in the journal Appetite. “Research has shown that comfort food triggers relationship-related cognitions and can fulfill belongingness needs for those secure in attachment (i.e., for those with positive relationship cognitions) (Troisi & Gabriel, 2011). Building on these ideas, we examined if securely attached individuals prefer comfort food because of its "social utility" (i.e., its capacity to fulfill belongingness needs) in one experiment and one daily diary study using two samples of university students from the United States. Study 1 (n = 77) utilized a belongingness threat essay among half of the participants, and the results showed that securely attached participants preferred the taste of a comfort food (i.e., potato chips) more after the belongingness threat. Study 2 (n = 86) utilized a 14-day daily diary design and found that securely attached individuals consumed more comfort food in response to naturally occurring feelings of isolation.”
Hmm. Maybe if we go back to that 2011 study referenced above, which appeared in Psychological Science, to wit: “Theories of social surrogacy and embodied cognition assume that cognitive associations with nonhuman stimuli can be affectively charged. In the current research, we examined whether the “comfort” of comfort foods comes from affective associations with relationships. Two experiments support the hypotheses that comfort foods are associated with relationships and alleviate loneliness. Experiment 1 found that the consumption of comfort foods automatically activates relationship-related concepts. Experiment 2 found that comfort foods buffer against belongingness threats in people who already have positive associations with relationships (i.e., are secure in attachment style).”
Well, that just about clears it up. Comfort food is...um...something we like? Help us, Cari Romm.
Romm took a stab at clearing up this mess in The Atlantic and spoke with Shira Gabriel, a SUNY, Buffalo prof and one of the authors of both studies. Gabriel told Romm that anything—a book, a TV show—could take the place of comfort food, providing a sense of familiarity.
“We tend to think about the need to belong as a fundamental human need. And by doing that, we’re equating it to other fundamental human needs, like the need for food or water,” Gabriel told Romm. “When it’s not fulfilled, you’re driven to fulfill it, in the same way that when you’re hungry, you’re driven towards food. So when you feel lonely or you feel rejected, you’re psychologically driven towards finding a way to belong.”
There you have it. Scientists can explain things like a normal human.
And that’s about all we can conclude in answer to this week’s Burning Question, because they just look at attachment style—whatever the hell that is. Other studies approach the matter differently, and come up with different theories.
Maybe it is just something we like that reminds us of something nostalgic. As Freud would have said, sometimes a burrito is just a burrito.