When did comfort food start making us uncomfortable?

On my loneliest days, I wish for my mother’s chop suey.Chinese food

This wish may sound odd to you, particularly if you know much about me. I’m not Asian. I come from a family of bland meals where salt and pepper were considered spices. I believe my mother even put Kitchen Bouquet in her recipe, which shows you just how un-Asian we are when preparing Asian food.

But there was something about her chop suey. I love it to this day. It reminds me of love, of family dinners at 7 p.m. sharp, after a long day. Of my mother sipping a glass of wine after work, sitting in her favorite chair while sorting the mail. Of being warm and safe on a cold winter’s night.

When I used to travel frequently for work, I had the opportunity to dine in some really great restaurants. The kind where each person at the table has their own personal assistant of sorts. I took a sip of water; it was topped off every single darn time (and yes, that gets annoying after a few sips). I remember finishing a meal which required 12 separate utensils and silently thanking my mother for going overboard on table etiquette in my formative years. She saved me from looking like a doofus.

Some of these meals were excellent. Technically. A perfectly done steak, the freshest lobster, light and airy desserts.

Others were hit and miss. I remember all too well the white asparagus mousse I was served at one of Chicago’s finest restaurants. And I remember thinking that some things were just not meant to be mousse. At that same meal, each course was tinier than the one before it. My ex and I ended up ordering room service after spending far too much on a supposedly excellent meal.

Comfort food, by its very nature, must involve love and some soul. In a New York minute, I would have traded that elegant Chicago dinner in a gorgeous dining room for my mother’s humble kitchen table chop suey. One was made with love; the other, to impress. Food to impress is a hollow pleasure.

iStock_000014540523SmallWhat Midwestern kid does not remember having green bean casserole on Thanksgiving? It scores as one of the least elitist dishes on the planet. Green beans with canned mushroom soup and some canned crunchy onion bits on top. It should be awful. But, many of us love it. To this day, I am delighted when one of the older people on my block makes it for a gathering.

Why? It reminds me of Thanksgiving at my Aunt Shirley’s house. Happily playing with my Michigan cousins. A house full of people. Chatter, spats, laughter, the relative who never shuts up, the one who knows it all, the one with the most enchanting stories. That casserole reminds me of times long past. Times, some days, I wish I could revisit. And, for some reason, my taste buds respond to it. I was conditioned early on, I guess, to like this combination of tastes. It’s not impressive. It’s just good.

There are other favorites, of course. Nothing made me happier, growing up, than the smell of my mother’s homemade bread in the oven. The tuna-with-an-olive-on-top-of-a-bread-triangle appetizers served on Christmas Eve. Baked beans. My father’s spaghetti squash.

I hope we don’t lose comfort food. I have friends whose kids eat very little outside of the planked salmon and whitefish rotation. Healthy? Yes. But not really very nourishing for your soul. When carbs are counted at every meal, it’s hard to feel comforted.

I see my sister’s kids ask for their favorite dishes when they visit. And her Christmas Day scones are to die for. My son will swear by my homemade macaroni and cheese, as well as my lemon cake.

I find myself hoping this happens around the world. At other dinner tables. With other families. Food is not just fuel. It is a pleasure to be enjoyed. One of my mother’s last requests while dying? Homemade mashed potatoes. And a milkshake. She stopped eating soon thereafter, but I look back so very happy that she got to have a meal like this. It’s one a child might order with delight when sick, knowing that she can have whatever she wants with no reprimand.

I like to think the mashed potatoes and milkshake reminded her of happier times at her own mother’s table or at her local soda shop as a teen.

When I cook for my friend, Meg, who is going through chemo, I try to think of food as fuel. That means I make chili with quinoa rather than ground beef. I throw some broccoli in with the onion. I get the science of nutrition.

But it also means I cook with love. She gets cornbread, which may have no redeeming value other than it tastes pretty darn good. As little as possible comes from a bag, can or box. It’s fresh. It’s cooked with love. I’m creating solace in the kitchen, for both of us.

They say it is not healthy to associate food with comfort.

Pshaw. Anyone who sees food strictly as fuel either has lost their taste buds or is completely missing the point.

Either way, that’s a sad story right there.

When you’re done telling it, please pass the chop suey.

 

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15 Comments Add yours

  1. I ate from so many places but every time someone my favourite food I end up saying dal rice(my comfort food). Probably the best food post I have ever read.
    Shred a tear for your friend undergoing chemo, hope things go well.
    Again wonderful post!!

  2. andmorefood says:

    actually – we asians use maggi seasoning in cooking too for that something-something, in moderation of course. so your mum could very well have been more asian than you suppose!

    I used to do more fine dining in london than I do now – and I used to love it. those tiny portions, those technically-perfect executions of whatever on huge, sparse white plates. but now I eat things that make me feel happy, well-fed and satisfied – and if it reminds me of home, all the better (though, really, there’s nothing quite like food at home).

    good luck to your friend in chemo – and I hope very much she finds comfort in your cooking. pshaw is definitely how I feel about it not being healthy.

  3. Anne says:

    yes, yes & yes – all except the chili during chemo – doesn’t her chemo give her heartburn?

  4. markbialczak says:

    At our house the simple my mom called her simple and delicious-to-me comfort meal chopped-meat-and-noodles. It was ground beef and elbow macaroni with canned tomato sauce. No, not spaghetti sauce, just old tomato sauce. Good enough for us. Thanks for reminding me to think about that, Kay. Yes, never should the tradition of comfort food go bye-bye.

  5. I eat with my 92 yr old mom a few times a week and make for her a lot of the comfort foods she served me. my sisters and one brother when we were all at home. For the past month or so we’ve been eating tomato sandwiches for lunch because now,as then, we never get tired of them and only stop eating them when the tomatoes are past. Every now and then, for a special treat, we have BLT’s. Our first tomato sandwich was a celebration of our newly ripened tomatoes. Our last tomato sandwich will give us hope for next year’s tomatoes. With cold weather approaching I’m looking forward to meals of Corn Beef Hash, Chicken soup and Baked Beans. There’s nothing like comfort foods to bring back good memories..

    1. candidkay says:

      I love the full circle, Gretchen. That you now make for her what she used to make for you. That’s the best kind of circle of love. And nothing beats fresh tomatoes from the garden . . .

  6. Love this post. (I love all your posts, fan-girl that I am.)

    This is a big issue for so many of us. I recently started dieting severely (i.e. have to completely re-think my eating and drinking, both quantity and content) as I have to lose a minimum of 40 lbs and really 60. Which is terrifying…because delicious food and drink are such extraordinary and reliable and affordable and accessible sources of pleasure, comfort, sensuality and memory for me, as they are for many of us. Denial and deprivation are not amusing. Nor is being hungry much of the time.

    I ate mashed potatoes and beans and rice (w chicken) yesterday at the college cafeteria and felt guilty…but it’s a day where I drive 90 mins each way and teach for four hours. Gah. I need some comfort!

    I will never view food as “fuel” and find that perspective both nasty and sad. I know the great joy of feeding people I love with very good food. It is difficult to consume calories of any sort without having accompanying emotions.

    1. candidkay says:

      I count myself lucky to have you as a fan:). Truly. And losing that much is no laughing matter. Wow. I get it. I have always celebrated good food, whether that means fresh tomatoes from the garden or a plateful of steaming pasta. Food as fuel only feels soul-less to me . . .

      1. I have not eaten pasta in a month. It’s killing me! 🙂
        I might break down this weekend and have a big-ass bowl of spaghetti before climbing back on the salad-low-fat-protein wagon. Zzzzzzzz. 🙂

  7. So well said, Kay. I have memories of my mother’s comfort food, and still wish I could cook half as well as her. I’d settle for even half!

  8. Lisa Brown says:

    The scolding I received from my mother’s nursing home staff was totally worth it when I remember my mom’s last ‘date’ with me. On her first date with my dad, he had taken her to a little local place in our NJ town for Texas Wieners. Those little hotdogs with chili reminded her of falling in love, feeling special and being safe, after a childhood of abuse and neglect. All special occasions were celebrated at that same little spot with Texas Wieners. My mom was a cheap date! After dad was gone and she became more and more disabled, her food choices were limited by her special dietary needs imposed by the medical establishment because of her diabetes. I understood that she couldn’t have what she loved so much on a regular basis, but I made it a point of taking her for (1) one, once a month . She would practically sing as she ate it! The next to the last time, she became very ill after returning to the nursing home that night. They asked her what she had eaten and she told them. A phone call in the middle of the night telling me how irresponsible a daughter I was for giving my mother such crap for dinner, and that it was my fault she was being transported to the local hospital at first made me feel so guilty. Mom recovered from her illness (which turned out to have nothing to do with what she had eaten) and had two more months. On our weekly ‘dates’ we stuck to the rules. But her last Sunday at home with me, she begged for a Texas Wiener. I could not deny her. Her joy was indescribable. She spoke again of meeting my dad, falling in love, feeling like a queen when she was with him, and how much she missed him. She hummed while chewing. No phone call in the middle of the night. Whew. She died 3 days later. I have no guilt anymore. And I loved this post.

    1. candidkay says:

      What a wonderful story, Lisa! I’m so glad you didn’t deny her that last “unguilty” pleasure. Seems like before we leave this very human world, we should be able to put those human senses to good use–taste among them! A beautiful memory for you both.

  9. How I love conversations about food. Reading about your mom’s last meal reminded me of my uncle (my mom’s brother) spending the whole day making a cabbage roll feast for what ended up being my mom’s last meal. What a gift that was to her and us. A lovely read, Kay.

    1. Lisa Brown says:

      The scolding I received from my mother’s nursing home staff was totally worth it when I remember my mom’s last ‘date’ with me. On her first date with my dad, he had taken her to a little local place in our NJ town for Texas Wieners. Those little hotdogs with chili reminded her of falling in love, feeling special and being safe, after a childhood of abuse and neglect. All special occasions were celebrated at that same little spot with Texas Wieners. My mom was a cheap date! After dad was gone and she became more and more disabled, her food choices were limited by her special dietary needs imposed by the medical establishment because of her diabetes. I understood that she couldn’t have what she loved so much on a regular basis, but I made it a point of taking her for (1) one, once a month . She would practically sing as she ate it! The next to the last time, she became very ill after returning to the nursing home that night. They asked her what she had eaten and she told them. A phone call in the middle of the night telling me how irresponsible a daughter I was for giving my mother such crap for dinner, and that it was my fault she was being transported to the local hospital at first made me feel so guilty. Mom recovered from her illness (which turned out to have nothing to do with what she had eaten) and had two more months. On our weekly ‘dates’ we stuck to the rules. But her last Sunday at home with me, she begged for a Texas Wiener. I could not deny her. Her joy was indescribable. She spoke again of meeting my dad, falling in love, feeling like a queen when she was with him, and how much she missed him. She hummed while chewing. No phone call in the middle of the night. Whew. She died 3 days later. I have no guilt anymore. And I loved this post.

    2. candidkay says:

      I love that her last meal was prepared with love by her brothers. A true gift:).

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