What is Comfort Food?

January 12, 2017

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” – M.F.K. Fisher

A couple weeks ago, as we finished a busy weekend of early mornings and holiday events and chauffeuring children, we found ourselves hunkering down at Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant over a giant platter of food, scooping bites of shiro, collard greens, potatoes and cabbage, lentils, and beef tibs. We practically sighed with relief as we took the first bites, like we had been racing all week just to get to that quiet moment at the back of the restaurant, when we could tear off pieces of spongy injera and scoop up the meats and veggies. We gravitated to that big metal plate because it was comfortable. It was warming and filling and the culinary equivalent of easing our bodies onto a soft couch or sinking into a warm bath.

Every time I savor Ethiopian food, I have to pause and wonder how, for this white kid from the midwest, a meal from a country over 7000 miles away on a different continent, a place I’ve never visited, has become comfort food to me. I was not an adventurous eater in my youth, and until my early 20s I couldn’t have told you what foods were staples in Ethiopian cuisine, so I sometimes puzzle at my love of a meal full of bright colors, heavy spices, and unfamiliar textures. How did it become comfort food for me?


What Is Comfort Food?
Comfort food is an intersection of many points. It’s food, yes – it’s delicious sustenance that’s pure pleasure to eat, but it’s also tied closely to time, and place, and people. We most often think of it as the meatloaf or the fried chicken or your grandma’s pie or your mom’s casserole you ate growing up. In that sense, it’s something familiar that was probably on the beige end of the color spectrum, it was served in big portions, and was most likely unhealthy to eat, but screw it, it made you feel good when you ate it.

Because comfort food originates from many sources, it takes many forms. Initially, in my life, it was turkey and mashed potatoes at my grandmother’s house as a kid. Still today, when I hear the phrase “comfort food,” my mind immediately turns to Thanksgiving dinner. But it’s taken on new definitions over the years. It’s been Nutella banana waffles from a food truck my wife and I ate late one night in NYC. It’s been spicy chilaquiles at Starliner Diner and a cortado at Crimson Cup and al pastor tacos at Los Guachos. It’s been a pint of beer at Studio 35 after a long day of parenting. It’s been a Taco Bell burrito eaten in my car after I lost a job and packed up my office. Time, place, people, repeated or focused around intense moments until a sense of familiarity creates the comfort, no matter what you’re eating.


Lucking Out With Breakfast

I often think I lucked out by landing on breakfast as my “specialty.” Why? Because it has such broad appeal. The funny thing about breakfast is that it ranges from super fancy (crabcake benedicts + mimosas) to incredibly basic (bacon and eggs + hot diner coffee), but it attracts people for the same reason: getting together. Overdone eggs and burnt bacon at the simplest diner become a form of comfort food, because the server knows our name and we like the people there and sitting in our usual place. I’ve found that people get incredibly defensive about their neighborhood diners for that very reason. It’s their space, and it represents safety and comfort for them.

That One Breakfast Place

I’m often asked what my absolutely favorite breakfast is, and I usually land on one dish: the eggs benedict at the Real Food Cafe in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Is it the best eggs benedict ever? No. Is it some super creative take on the benedict? Nope. But it’s my favorite. I have it whenever we go home to visit my family. The comparison of “best” or “favorite” almost isn’t fair, because no place in the world is going to match the feeling of my hometown. Nothing can carry the weight of a cafe that’s only a few blocks from my parents’ house, a place where they know all the servers by name, and where I run into old high school classmates and college professors. A place where the owner and servers care for my family like their own.

But it’s my favorite breakfast and one of my comfort foods all the same, not only because it’s so well executed (those potatoes, though) but because we eat it surrounded by family. There are better breakfasts I will have throughout my life, but none of them come with the exact associations, so even before I sit down at Real Food I know I’m ordering a benedict.

Change Is Coming

Our initial definitions of comfort food come from our upbringing, where a simple pastry baked by your grandmother or a certain regional dish comes to represent your entire childhood. For me, this was gravy and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, French dip sandwiches at my Grandma Dekker’s house, or banket, a Dutch pastry our family still makes every Christmas.

Because we constantly change, our comfort foods grow and change. Especially if they’re tied to an experience or a person we meet later in life. The best example of this in my life is a hole-in-the-wall Ethiopian restaurant in my hometown called Little Africa (again, the hometown feeling). My wife and I discovered it as we were graduating college and moving away, but we return to it every time we’re home. It’s comfort because, like Real Food, it represents a bit of home and because the food is really damn good. Once, during our first year of marriage, we were both fighting colds and dealing with a difficult day. Our only recourse was dinner at Little Africa, which cured our sniffles and eased our minds.

That’s how an Ethiopian restaurant became the very definition of comfort food for this caucasian kid from Michigan. That’s why now in Columbus, after busy weekends and when want to re-connect with friends, we gravitate to Lalibela and its giant platters.

Eating Burritos in the Van

Our comfort foods are defined by the places and people, but at times we’re driven to certain foods by a need for comfort. Even in those moments, I’m sure, we’re led by a desire for the familiar.

A couple years ago I was lecturing at Ohio State and my contract ran out. I was losing a job I love, one I had been doing for seven years, and my time there wound down quietly over my final summer semester. During those remaining weeks, I packed up my office bit by bit, finishing over the course of one hot August evening where I loaded boxes of books into my van. In exhaustion, physical and mental, I stopped by Taco Bell on the way home and bought a burrito. It was the simplest thing, but it was a bit of comfort in a time of confusion. (Don’t worry, good things came out of that change.)

In that moment, a simple fast food burrito took on as much meaning as banket and eggs benedict and Grandma’s French dip sandwiches. Eating it was taking part in a process, one that used food to connect me to the memories of my job, an act that forced me to pause and reflect on what I had just done and what was happening in the broader sense of my life.

That’s where that burrito mattered. It was more than just eating my feelings. Comfort food isn’t just pigging out on the first thing within reach. It’s food that draws a connection between different elements – non-culinary elements – in our lives. I pulled into that drive through because of every late night Taco Bell run in college, or every date night that ended with a stop for junk food. It was familiar, it was safe. (Yes, I know it’s sad to be saying that about Taco Bell, but you get my point.)

What are comfort foods to you? What are the people, places, and memories that drive you to these foods?

Spread the Word!

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I go by Dr. Breakfast, but in addition to restaurants and recipes, I write about family travel, breweries and distilleries, the arts, outdoor fun, and so much more.

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