“Comfort food”: a simple phrase with a multi-faceted meaning. In the most basic terms, “comfort food” refers to food that makes you feel good. It can be the food from one’s childhood, but not always.
It can be a food eaten to make you feel better, or a “guilty pleasure”, something you indulge in. It is most often simple and familiar in nature, and always emotionally charged.
From a physiological and psychological perspective, the link between mood and food is clear. We know that eating certain kinds of “comfort foods” — usually those high in carbohydrates — triggers the release of “feel good” hormones in our bodies that regulate mood. It’s hard to articulate exactly why foods are comforting emotionally; I suppose it’s a taste of memory.
We tend to associate these types of foods with happy memories, loved ones, or good feelings, and it is those feelings that we seek to recapture when we reach for our “comfort foods.”
When we are sad we crave food to overcome our feelings, seeking that temporary euphoric boost of well-being. We reach for solace in the form of food. It’s the gastronomical equivalent of a bandage. Eating in this case has more to do with emotional security than with the food itself.
When we are happy we celebrate or reward ourselves with the foods that hold the most meaning to us, those that connect us to positive past experiences. We make that special meal, or a loved one’s favorite dessert. The comfort here is in the positive association between the historical, emotional significance of the food and our feelings in the present moment.
Then there is food that offers comfort in the sheer act of eating it; that coddles the senses. It’s the kind of food that we eat when we want to get cozy and enjoy a peaceful moment.
One of my favorites is a snack that requires little preparation — it’s simply a combination of toasted bread, warm milk and chocolate.
The bread is toasted, lightly buttered, sprinkled with bittersweet chocolate shavings and soaked in just enough warm milk to get it wet, but not soggy. It’s the kind of food I want to eat in my pj’s curled up under a blanket, because sometimes comfort is needed.
“Bread, milk and butter are of venerable antiquity. They taste of the morning of the world.”
—Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), The Seer
What’s your comfort?