The first time I heard the phrase “comfort food”, I asked my mom what it meant, and she told me it was food that made people feel good. I thought that was a strange definition, since at the time I didn’t really have any emotional association with food and so that was a pretty foreign concept to me. I also remember thinking that definition wasn’t it because people seemed to mean something specific when they said it. Comfort food, I realized, was used to describe all the foods I had a viscerally negative reaction to – food that you might see in a commercial being slowly dropped into melted butter or drizzled over something. I guess I did have an emotional association with food after all.
I’m thinking about comfort food right now for the very obvious reason that we’re supposed to be staying inside and as a result a lot of us are eating comfort foods out of the mix of boredom and anxiety that’s resulted from that. Personally, I discovered that I’ve gained a few pounds since quarantine began, which is new for me – I’ve never accidentally gained weight in my entire life. Before you start accusing me of being a “skinny bitch” (can we please put that phrase to rest?), I have to say that this is partially due to a familial body type, partially due to metabolism, and partially due to an eating disorder. So food has been on my mind: because I’ve been eating more of it, because I have complicated feelings about what I’ve been eating, because I’m tired of it when it’s such a big part of my day in quarantine life, because most of the media I consume are food shows and podcasts, and because, as those shows and podcasts are constantly reminding me, food is a big part of perceptions of race, and that’s something we’re talking about a lot right now. So when I think about why I’ve gained weight, I think about comfort food – what it is and what it means to me – and how it keeps me apart from other people.
The biggest barrier between my definition of comfort food and seemingly the standard American definition is my Ashkenazi upbringing. I’m being very particular here when I say Ashkenazi and not Jewish, because I’m talking about the culture of a particular ethnic group from a particular region of Europe and their descendants who defined the culture I was raised in, in the Tri-State Area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, for those of you unfamiliar with the term). Ashkenazi food is peasant food. And not peasant food the way gourmet chefs talk about French peasant food like bouillabaisse.
Ashkenazi food is the food of scarcity, in a region that doesn’t grow a lot of things particularly well, during a period of tremendous oppression. So, most people will define Ashkenazi food as bland, because in the mid-19th century (when a lot of Ashkenazis left the area between Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Austria, codifying their culture), it was really difficult to get any spices other than salt in that region. Pretty much the only flavoring agents of Ashkenazi food are salt, chicken fat, garlic, onions, and occasionally distilled white vinegar: special occasion food gets paprika, sugar, cinnamon, or raisins. It’s those special occasion foods that are my comfort foods: matzo ball soup and matzo brei (literally dumplings and omelets made out of cracker crumbs and eggs), roast chicken seasoned with paprika, kugel (a baked casserole) of either the potato or noodle variety, and blintzes (cheese-filled crepes). Or, in the more New World variation, a baked potato (with only butter and salt) and a chocolate egg cream (a chocolate milk soda). These are all comfort foods in the sense that other people understand the concept – they’re filling, carb- and fat-dense foods that make me feel safe because the people who raised me used to make them for me. But they’re not the foods other (American) people think of as comfort foods.
The other big reason I feel a separation with the broader American culture when it comes to comfort food is that I didn’t really have positive associations with food (or I didn’t think I did) until I left home. I think this is pretty common – I keep hearing stories of chefs or other foodies who only paid attention to food once they didn’t have their parents to make it for them anymore. But when I left home, my parents hadn’t been making food for me for a long time. I was a pretty independent kid, both by choice and circumstance, and I had been cooking for myself for most of high school and preparing my own lunches since elementary school. The absence that I felt when I left home wasn’t my family’s cooking, it was New York’s.
Mostly it was bread. Bagels and rye bread existed in Minnesota, but they were not bagels and rye bread – just fluffy lies that looked like them. Rugelach and babka were no where to be found. Lox was available, but sad. I had no idea what cream cheese was for in these conditions. There were no corner fruit stores selling amazing tropical produce, and the local supermarket didn’t have an entire aisle of Goya (although that brand has become somewhat…tainted lately). And then when I was away from New York in the summers too, I started to realize my favorite summer comfort food – coco helado. It’s not Italian ice, it’s icies, as kids on the Upper West Side called it, and it’s a tropical treat that came to New York mostly through Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants. It comes in coconut, mango, cherry, and rainbow flavors, and a little paper cup that cost .$50, now $1 – I like to get a cup that’s mango on the bottom and coconut on the top, or all coconut if it’s a really hot day so I can drink the melted ice at the bottom. I didn’t know how much these things mattered to me, because my family didn’t do a lot of talking about food, or bonding over food. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of things that my parents and grandparents made that were delicious and part of our family traditions, but somehow they were always beside the point.
The point, in my family, was always conversation. Deep, thought-provoking, argumentative conversation. Six people each having a separate conversation with each other member of the group at the same time. I remember how old I was the first time I got a word in edgewise, the first time I got anyone to listen when I talked, the first time I won an argument. I was 12. I just didn’t love food enough to let it get in the way of trying to get a word in. And as I got older, this developed into an eating disorder, in which I felt that I didn’t deserve to eat until I was done with my work, to the point that I didn’t even feel hungry, or I felt nauseous at the thought of food, if I still felt there was something to do.
My personal education in college and through my 20s revolved a lot around overcoming this eating disorder, and around learning to respect the cultures of the rest of America. I think there is a common thread through these ideas, in comfort food. Recognizing my comfort foods was my way into realizing that I actually liked food, and teaching myself that hunger is physical and emotional. But it was also a way into learning about other people and their experiences. After four years in Minnesota, I finally developed some new regional food loves – Pho (yes, Pho is a regional comfort food in Minnesota), hoagies, quesadillas, spinach-artichoke dip, root beer, and thin-crust pizza cut into tiny squares. I started to appreciate that these were good foods, and that the people who liked them didn’t have bad taste just because they couldn’t tell that a roll with a hole in it wasn’t a bagel. And this new appreciation also opened me up to seeing food as a way to tell cultural histories, and not just a static way to get your calories and show your status.
So that brings me to now. I’ve been watching and listening to a ton of food media, and the major trend in books, tv shows, podcasts, and blogs right now is food=connections. Food is how we tell stories, food is how we practice family, food is culture. And because we’re dealing with a shitstorm of division right now, we’re seeing this concept of food=connections especially applied to our racial and ethnic origins. I would say one of the surprising pioneers of this idea was Alton Brown – you thought Good Eats was a show about the science of food told through silly skits, but actually it was a food ethnography of southern Americana (and it didn’t pretend to be otherwise). But I’ve really been inundated with it lately. I started off watching old episodes of Pati’s Mexican Table, a cooking show on PBS in which the host, Pati Jinich, travels through different regions of Mexico each season to explore the diversity of Mexican cooking, and then makes dishes inspired by her travels in her kitchen in Maryland. Then I started listening to The Splendid Table podcast, which takes a universalist approach by exploring different interpretations of a theme each episode, like chili peppers through history, hot sauce, Mexican food, French food, and, for lack of a better term, Americanization. And this week I got really deep into food=connections when I simultaneously started watching Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation and listening to the Home Cooking podcast with Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway. It is impossible to make it through an episode of any of these without getting into someone’s personal story or a historical narrative, and it usually has to do with race, immigration, class, gender, or disability.
I’ll be honest, I’m starting to get a little emotionally burnt out from all of this food culture connectivity. I’m mainlining the most emotionally impactful moments of so many people’s lives, and on top of that, I have very strong opinions about certain topics related to food. But one of the main ideas that I’ve gotten out of all of these media is that people find comfort in food. Obvious, yes. But to me, who never actively sought out any kind of emotion in food until well into my 20s, this is kind of surprising. And more importantly, what is considered comforting is completely wrapped up in cultural context, and yet we treat it as a constant. Marketing is built around the idea of “classic” comfort foods and “traditional” kitchen staples, implying that things that are unfamiliar to the American palate (i.e. brought by immigrants) are nothing more than fads. The idea of capital C Comfort Food is a limited view of what is acceptably American, when the reality of comfort food is that it is universal and culturally specific, and that as American culture moves away from an assimilationist model, it’s going to include a much broader definition of comfort food. The same detachment that I felt from the idea of comfort food for most of my childhood is felt by many people whose cultures are deemed “not American”. But that reality is changing, both with increased interest in the diversity of America and the democratization of media through podcasts and YouTube. The danger now isn’t that cultures are going to be ostracized for their weird foods – it’s that they’re going to be appropriated while the people who make those foods get left behind. And that’s why there continues to be so much ink spilled about the idea that food is connection; because people want to share the comfort, not just the food.