01 September 2009


Photo: Mac and cheese at Otom restaurant, Chicago. By author, December 2008.

What, exactly, is comfort food? We hear the term "comfort food" bandied about with increasing frequency. There are now restaurants, such as Citizen Smith and Boho in Los Angeles, defining their food genre as "comfort food" or "modern comfort food," and Food Network cooking-show hosts have been liberally using the term to describe an expanding roster of recipes. I think it's time to ask what people really mean by it and why it has lately gained such currency.

Can we say which are and which aren't the comfort foods? The most obvious and ubiquitous examples out there--such as mac and cheese, chicken pot pie, meatloaf, hamburgers, fried chicken, pizza--do tend to have a family resemblance. They became standards of fast-casual chains or sold as icons of the family dinner table via mass-media advertising in the decades immediately following World War II. The list of these foods collapses home and fast-food-chain cooking just as their advertising did, by eliding the contradictory notions of modern convenience and traditional hearth. Home-cooked pop-cultural standards were laden with labor savers--instant mashed potatoes, ready-made mixes, and the like--by the growing chemical-industrial food complex. The fast-food chains enlisted advertising to sell the notion of home or family with their side of fries.

Isn't it ironic that the term "comfort food," meant to evoke the aura of home and hearth, the culinary equivalent of mother's bosom, has been conjured by its opposite? Our use of "comfort food" to designate postwar food Americana also suggests that what comforts us about these foods is their pop-cultural familiarity, not really their source of production.

As the term "comfort food" extended beyond this inner core of postwar standards to embrace the more and more ethnic and regional dishes--from Japanese ramens to Moroccan tagines--to enter the pop-cultural vernacular, what does and doesn't count as a comfort food has become difficult to say. Yet, I suggest, the term stays in circulation because its association with familiarity, familiality, and abundance is useful. It has increased circulation because that has become increasingly useful.

But why? What distinction is the term maintaining, and what rising tide is it invoked to defend against? If "comfort food" is on the rise, mustn't some sort of discomfort food be encroaching?

If we think about the pace at which a widening population of diners has been exposed to new trends and experimentalism generally in our chef-admiring era, perhaps we can understand the rise of comfort food as a reactionary response to those demands. The discomfort food is, like the historical avant-garde, challenging. It requires us to wake up and engage new ideas, to be conscious of what we're eating and about the definition of a meal. By contrast, comfort food, like much pop culture, is meant to go down easy. It demands nothing of us, aims only to please, and flatters mere recognition.

Copyright 2009 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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