After studying and writing about New England food and it's history for decades, I have lately been bombarded with "scientific" links
to what is and isn't comfort food and the meaning. I have also read an article stating that a person receives the same gratification from a granola bar(in a comfort food sense) as one would any other comfort food dish. Even more articles are written with carbohydrates and sugars being the basis of a comfort food.
That was it!!! I have decided to lay to rest, once and for all (I hope), what comfort food is and why comfort food is. But first, we need to distinguish between comfort food and what I call "Jersey" food.
The latter could be a greasy cheeseburger, french fries smothered in chili or gravy, a big bowl of fiery red chili or that foot-long hot dog with all the fixings. Pizza, ice cream, hot cocoa, a fresh crisp apple or your favorite sandwich are generally associated with Jersey food as well.
Jersey food is any food that you can don a jersey, casual shirt or blouse and enjoy, without fear of any standards, an item of food that is decadent, sloppy, delicious or finger-licking. If it drips onto your shirt, fine! If you end up licking ALL your fingers, fine! If you just need to throw a cap on or pull your hair back in a pony tail and sit down to order at a greasy spoon, then that is what Jersey food is all about. Relaxed, unpretentious and sloppily good.
Comfort food, on the other hand, has always meant a food that brings both your taste buds and mind-set together in a place that has been visited before. A place where comfort sets in at the mere thought of a particular food item that may range from a simple home baked loaf of bread to something as complex as a Baked Alaska. A place that immediately brings you to a place that is comforting, secure, tranquil and homy. Remember that meatloaf someone in your family made and you enjoyed it as a child?
And when you are a child, you had no worries, never wondering how bills were being paid or if you would have clothes to wear or would be able to keep a roof over your head? Even if you did have to worry about such things, there may have been a food item that brought you to a safer place as a child.
They all go hand in hand. It was that blanket of 'security' that always covered you when growing up.
It was without consideration that you would have love, a bed and a meal. So these are part of who we are. Something that is not controlled, but controls us. When you think of that beloved meatloaf, it instantly brings all those other factors along with it. Meatloaf, love and comfort. It has nothing to do with serotonin, chemicals in the brain, sugar or carbohydrates, pure and simple.
Do you honestly think that a granola bar gives you that same, secure comfort? I don't even classify these bars as jersey food! What an insane "scientific" find!!!
I like to accept the moniker Comfort Food King that a chef labeled me with many years ago with pride because, not only do I try to bring families back to the table, but I sincerely try to create new comfort foods that can be passed from one generation to another. And the only way to do that is from home, at the table, make if simple yet different and above all, tasty.
Certainly I add my own touch in the way of fruits and New England staples, but because I am a Yankee, there are certain items that are comfort ingredients to us, like maple syrup, molasses, apples, Cheddar cheese and the like.
To really swell up my e-mail and responses, I will tell you that barbecue(for example) is not a comfort food, unless it brings you back to the days of your childhood or home. Barbecue is that type of food that is a Jersey Food, and for goodness sake, know that I am not talking about the state of New Jersey, you should read the ENTIRE article before e-mailing or posting replies in the negative.
Many studies have been undertaken to find out what makes comfort food....well, comforting. And the general agreement among physicians and scientists is the correlation between serotonin and that feeling of enjoying comfort food, They state that it influences almost all of our brain cells that are related to mood, desire, appetite, memory and learning. And when we are deficient in serotonin, then these functions are altered or affected in some way, even being attributed to depression.
There is one HUGE problem with this method of thinking and prognosis. THERE IS NO WAY TO MEASURE SEROTONIN LEVELS IN THE LIVING BRAIN!!!!!
So as much as most of these shallow thinking scientists may theorize(based on absolutely zero evidence), our longing and desire for(as well as the end result of enjoying) comfort food comes from heredity and the uncontrollable desire to revert to a protective, motherly time in our lives. Those simpler times when family actually sat down and enjoyed each others company during a meal. The time when 'homemade' actually meant something and not just used by every manufacturer trying to sell a product.
I can give you a great example of the term comfort food that truly epitomizes its' meaning. Just think about one time where you were either on a vacation, business venture or any foray that took you away from your home. No matter how much fun you had, no matter how thrilling the time was and no matter if you had ANY complaints or not, the second you walk into your home after being away, the words "I am glad to be back home!" is uttered without thought. And why do you think that happens? This whole article is summed up with that seven word exclamation.
So I would love to hear from you with regards to not only what your favorite comfort food is, but why.
What is MY comfort food? It would have to be real Mac and Cheese. Made with sharp Cheddar cheese, dryer than normal with a cracker crumb baked on top. Why? Because Mom and Dad made it for us numerous times as a child and it certainly brings back memories of all of us around the supper table AND the restaurant kitchen where I would often eat while helping my family.
Although......Grammy's blueberry cake rivals it!