For me, it is pasticciotti (half spheres made with Italian pastry dough, pasta frolla, and filled with a soft filling like pastry cream or ricotta) filled with peach preserve and a single sour cherry in syrup, the sugary ricotta prepared to fill cannoli, and the “piruni” (Sicilian name for sfogliata made with flour and brewer’s yeast) filled with spinach and dry figs. The memory food of my childhood in a Sicilian village on a hill, among expanses of artichoke and wheat fields interrupted by the shimmering light of the greenhouse plastic covers, before the blue sea under a sky too often clear for the needs of the soil that breaks forming impenetrable clods. The concept of comfort food appeared for the first time in 1966 in an article published in the Palm Beach Post: “Adults, when in a state of emotional stress, take refuge in what could be called “comfort food” – food associated with childhood, like poached eggs or the famous chicken soup”. But it is in 1997 that comfort food is officially recognized with its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary which locates its etymology in an article published twenty years earlier in the Washington Post Magazine.
What is comfort food? The Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as “food prepared in a traditional style usually accompanied by a nostalgic or sentimental lure”. A food that comforts, that makes one feel well by satisfying an emotional need of the person consuming it. It is a dish that serves memories, usually a childhood food or connected to a happy time, place or person. So comfort food is related to the individual because each one has his/her own story, experience, built with little bricks partially connected to culture and partially connected to one’s individual reality which both compose our memory. There are several studies which first of all single out several foods which can be defined as comfort food depending on the country: in Canada, it’s the poutine, fried potatoes covered with cheese and sometimes meat and vegetables; in Spain, it is the tortilla with potatoes and onions, sauteed and baked with egg; in France, it is crêpes; in Japan, oden, a soup with eggs, fish and vegetables; in Poland, pierogi, a fried dumpling filled with onions, potatoes, ground meat, seasoned cheese and sometimes also fruits; in the United States it is pizza and ice cream; in Italy, it is beaten egg, bread, butter and jam, lasagne and grandma’s cake.
According to scholars Wansink, Cheney, and Chan, comfort food is also related to gender and age: men identify it in hearty and warm dishes like soups, meat stew, or steaks while women prefer foods which require little or no preparation like ice cream or chocolate.
With regard to age, younger people prefer snacks while over-55 prefer more elaborate dishes. According to Shira Gabriel, a psychologist, food is directly connected to classic conditioning: “If as a child you are served a certain type of food, that food is connected to the feeling of being cared for and receiving attention. When one grows up, that very food triggers the sense of belonging” but, according to Gabriel, food could be substituted by any other thing like a favorite movie or book or music.
Other studies have explored the possibility of a biochemical component singling out the high carbohydrate and/or fat content which would increase the level of synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter involved in the balancing of mood, appetite, and sleep. Sugar intake can stimulate also the release of endorphin, neurotransmitters that could interact with opioids in the brain, inducing a feeling of wellbeing, good humor, and pain relief, which can apparently be decreased also by fat-rich foods thanks to the release of cholecystokinin. Apparently, just the presence of lipids in food increases its palatability thus easing the consoling and comforting effect.
As Wright points out, food is emotion because the brain areas where we store information on taste and flavor are the same as where we store emotions, reactions to our surroundings, and memories. Talking about memories and of the evocative power of food, Proust’s madeleines and one of the most famous literary passages:
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The tea has called up in me, but does not itself understand, and can only repeat indefinitely with a gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day. And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense that it was happy, that it was a real state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I find again the same state, illumined by no fresh light. I compel my mind to make one further effort, to follow and recapture once again the fleeting sensation. And that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention to the sounds which come from the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is growing fatigued without having any success to report, I compel it for a chance to enjoy that distraction which I have just denied it, to think of other things, to rest and refresh itself before the supreme attempt. And then for the second time, I clear an empty space in front of it. I place in position before my mind's eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colourless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, of what period in my past life. Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now that I feel nothing, it has stopped, has perhaps gone down again into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness which deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow, which let themselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind. And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so at that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.
(Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way)
In Proust’ writing, it is about the opposite path of comfort food. While with comfort food, it is the individual who plays an active role and resorts to comfort food to feel well and evoke memories or pleasant feelings, in Swann’s Way the order is inverted: the memory is not sought by the character but it is the food itself that, without a voluntary act, unchains emotions that lead the protagonist to follow the thread of memory toward ancient memories.
It is thus an involuntary remembering, derived by a random event, that unchains voluntary memories. In both cases, no matter whether the subject is active or passive, food, with its evocative emotional force, goes beyond its function of physical nourishment and becomes nourishment for the soul erasing space and time limits. Very different is looking for emotional solace in the food itself. In this case, food is not the keystone of reawakening a memory of a place or a person but it is an end in itself to fill an emotional void or to bury stress or regrets.
This different emotional use of food, which recurs more among women than men, may turn out to be dangerous because it does not solve the problem and can instead add more difficulties because of weight gains or physical unbalances.
In order to avoid these issues, psychologist Glenn Livingston suggests cutting the connection between emotions and food and rather face problems through other tools. Commercial enterprises, quick to catch the concretization of a new need, jumped on the comfort food train and, at least in the United States, in many restaurant menus, there is a space reserved to traditional comfort food preparations. The presence of Mac ‘n Cheese, a typical dish of American childhood, has increased by 33% during the last five years (according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board), grilled cheese has become a fixture of casual restaurants so much so that it is part of their names like Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, The Grilled Cheese Truck, and Cheeseboy. Also in the field of publishing comfort food has become a widespread topic in both psychology and gastronomy.
Emily Nunn has published The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, with recipes to heal a broken heart; Comfort Food by Kitty Thomas is a dark novel; Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, bestseller and number one in the New York Times list, just to name a few.
To officially crown the concept of comfort food, December 5th has been chosen as the comfort food day, casually the same day as Walt Disney’s birthday and the day in which prohibition was abolished, not bad as an evocation of childhood and freedom.