Comfort Foods

You’ve just come home from work. It has been one of “those” days. You think, “Am I coming down with a cold?” You can not believe what your “friend” said in an email. Your bank account is down to $1.36 and your car is on empty. The doctor left a message that you need more tests. We have all “been there.” Some days can really try your patience. How do you deal with the stress?

Some folks go straight to that package of cookies. Others head for the freezer and dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy. Still others find the strength to prepare a pot of chicken soup with celery, carrot, parsnips, and wide homemade noodles. Most of us have a favorite food that we crave when times are tough and our psyches need healing.

I asked my relatives, friends, and neighbors about their favorite “comfort foods.” Their responses brought many fond memories for them and for me, along with some great conversations! My best friend reminisced about her mom making farina (AKA cream of wheat) with “toast smothered in REAL butter.” She added, “the contrast of the rich flavor of the butter on the crisp toast with the simple flavor of the smooth farina…” and then she sighed. Another friend connected her favorite food to memories of “Sunday dinner at a restaurant on 63rd and Stony Island near the L-tracks.” Her comments took me back to Chicago and the days my mom would fry “baloney” and onions in butter, and serve it as a sandwich on “Wonder bread”. Today I know it is supremely unhealthy, but the mere thought of its flavor and texture make me happy.

In preparation for this post, I was extremely surprised to discover that my mom, grandma, and generations before her would never have used the phrase “comfort food.” (That term was first coined in 1966.) They were just creating something that someone else could enjoy. It was all about nurturance and love. One of my friends said, “I remember Dad making popcorn. It is still one of my favorites.” Another recalled “chicken and dumplings at a restaurant where the server always knew exactly what I wanted.” One friend’s “Aunt Gertrude” created memories with her goulash. My cousin said her mom would imbed hard boiled eggs inside meatloaf! There went my theory that comfort food always had to be high in sugar or starch!

Scientists have been able to determine that comfort food is usually high in fatty-acids, carbohydrates, tryptophan, or theobromine, (that’s the magic ingredient in chocolate). All of those food components have an effect on serotonin, which stimulates the pleasure centers in our brains. They are certain that there is a “gut-brain connection,” though they are not exactly sure how it works. It made me laugh to think that macaroni and cheese with fried hot dogs (my husband’s favorite), creamed chipped beef on toast, or halva might, one day, replace Valium or Zanax!

It’s not quite that simple! Comfort foods also involve strong psychological components. Medical imaging has proven that, similar to the reaction of Pavlov’s dogs, the mere mention of a favorite food causes physical reactions. Positive changes occur in the brain when good memories are triggered. Several relatives and friends mentioned Polish traditions and customary foods: Easter lamb cake and home made pierogi (think Polish ravioli). For some, the favored pierogi filling was savory sauerkraut or cheese, while others mentioned sweet cherry or cheese, and plum varieties. Another Polish comfort food was nalesniki (crepes). Italian friends enjoyed lasagna, and dipping crusty bread in sauce or gravy (“fare la scarpetta.”) When I’m feeling under the weather, I still make kluski and milk because that dish helps me feel the touch of Mom’s caring hand, though she has long since left this world.

The only common traits I found in all comfort food was that they taste good and are not necessarily on the top of your doctor’s list of foods you should be eating. However, we must also remember that “all things in moderation” is eternal wisdom. Yes, caring for your health is a virtue! Still, when the clouds have rolled in and the world seems to be against you, I don’t think you’ll be reaching for the broccoli or carrot sticks.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that one of my Facebook friends said her favorite comfort food was “veggies.” I guess comfort is found wherever good memories come back to life!

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