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comfort food

Entering the comfort zone of comfort food

A friend of mine who is a world-class chef once surprised me when his serious answer to the joking question, “Do you ever go to McDonald’s?” was, in his native French accent, “Yes, yes, certainly.” He explained that when he’s on the run and has a grumbling stomach, McDonald’s is just the ticket. No matter where you are traveling, you know what to expect from the menu, you know what you like from the menu, and the familiarity of the food, is . . . (he stopped to think of the right English word) . . . “ah, yes, comforting.”

A natural alliance

Food and comfort are no strangers. According to the Oxford English Corpus, the word comfort, as a modifier, commonly appears as “comfort zone,” “comfort level,” and . . . ta-da . . . “comfort food.” The term is a purely subjective concept, but is defined in OxfordDictionaries.com as “food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically food associated with childhood or home cooking.” In 1996, when I served on the board of a nonprofit children’s center, we produced a cookbook, the theme of which was comfort food. When we solicited recipes from the community, it was obvious that no one needed an explanation of what comfort food is. I had solicited recipes for other fundraising cookbooks in the past, but I had never before seen such an effusive response. People not only love their comfort food, they love to share it.

No, really—not chocolate chip cookies—potato chip cookies

As expected, our Comfort Food Cookbook included various recipes for tuna casserole and bread pudding, but the real insight into private comforts came with such indulgences as potato chip cookies and candied kielbasa. Comfort food is a culinary subculture, and as such it has carved its own niche in the language. You will probably find more adjectives and personal names in the index of a comfort food cookbook than in any other genre of cookbook imaginable. To name a few from our cookbook: Best Ever Sweet Pickles, Grandma Bailey’s Pot Roast, Uncle Larry’s Chicken, Melt-in-Your-Mouth Blueberry Cake.

Once a comfort, always a comfort

The descriptive names of comfort food recipes are typically simple (and sometimes elaborately simple, if you know what I mean), but always purposeful. They say, “Try me. Enjoy me. Make my family a part of your family.” One of these recipes is called Homemade Hotdog Supreme, the submission of eight-year-old Daniel, whose recipe goes like this: “Place 1 hotdog in 1 frozen hotdog roll and wrap it completely in a paper napkin. Put in microwave and cook at high for 45 seconds. Take out of oven, unwrap, and top with your favorite hotdog topping.” At eight, Daniel already understood the language of comfort food: keep it simple and give it a good name. That young man is in his twenties now, and I can just about guarantee he still takes comfort in a good old Homemade Hotdog Supreme.

Comfort and consolation are never out of season

Here in Upstate New York, the arrival of spring was dramatically out of step with the vernal equinox. When we were itching to till our warm garden soil and fill our cars with greenhouse goodies, we were instead listening to our furnaces kick into overtime and watching snow bluster through the bewildered boughs of spring buds. These were days comforted by (ah . . .) Mommy’s Very-Vegetable Chowder and (ooh . . .) Sarah’s Amazing Cheesecake Squares.

And still, spring eluded us. May ended in bone-chilling fashion, with many Upstaters shoveling snow on Memorial Day. After a relentlessly rainy June, we welcome the authentic summer days of July and happily give ourselves over to a whole new season of comfort food: tomato-basil sandwiches, ballpark pretzels, strawberry shortcake . . . .

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