Comfort Food

2013 cookiesIt’s that time of year again. The holidays are over (unless you’re down in Carnival country). I’ve put on a few pounds during December, despite my best intentions and the many cookies I managed to resist. All over the “first world” people are starting diets, exercise programs, and resolving to do things better this year. Any time of change is a great time for that. I’ve been advising folks to hold off on any reducing diets until the 15th because this New Year started with a New Moon (great for growing things, but not the best for shrinking, the Full Moon is the best time to start a reducing diet).

But this is not the time to try to reduce anyway. This is the cold time of year, the dark time of year (although blessedly, the sun is coming up sooner, and going down later again!). This is the time of year when we feel like hunkering down and hibernating until spring. Admittedly, the modern world does not encourage us to do this, but at least we can be kind to ourselves. Go to bed a bit earlier. So many studies have told us that more sleep leads to less illness, yet do we take advantage of those long, cold winter nights to catch some extra dream time? Not usually. We also know that it’s not just holiday snacking that leads to winter weight gain. The amount of light and temperatures also are telling us to put on a few extra pounds for the cold months. We don’t want to become morbidly obese, but a few pounds variation seasonally is different than adding a dress size.

DSC00064It’s Comfort Food time. We don’t just want something warm and filling, we want something familiar, something that reminds us of simpler, happier times. After a month of fancy shmansy taste sensations, new and exciting flavors and textures, what we want is chicken soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, and mac and cheese- just like mother used to make it. We may even want it the way mother made it even if the recipe we’ve found is better than hers. Our noses are hooked up directly to our memories, and one whiff of something from the past brings back memories of sights, sounds and emotions associated with that scent.

DSC00560Taste is simple (although not quite as simple as the sweet, salt, sour, bitter we learned in school), but scent is incredibly complex.  Scent differentiates between the smell of Necco wafers eaten out in the field where you used to play, and the same wafers eaten in the attic hideout. Your subconscious mixes everything from the many pollens or molds to the wood and carpet, whatever trees grew near your home, and the dozens of other miniscule notes that make up the perfume of your childhood. When life feels out of control and responsibilities weigh us down like the heavy winter coats and mufflers and boots we must wear at this time of year, it is a small miracle when a stew, whether a goulash, stroganoff, or hotpot,… or the smell of bread, warm from the oven, can make us return emotionally to that time in our life when doing our homework or staying up to see a favorite show were our biggest problems.

I’d say the texture is a big part of comfort food, it’s warm and soft, gooey and thick. DSC00783It sticks to your mouth, and makes your tummy feel pleasantly full.  Pastas, casseroles, mashed potatoes, almost anything in a cheese sauce invokes a sense of wholesome goodness. The morning version of this would be hot cereal (like a house brownie, I am quite thrilled at the idea of a bowl of hot oatmeal with butter melting over the top).  Most forms of baked goods are equally appealing. But they must be simple and familiar- apple pie and gingerbread, rather than vol-o-vent or fancy deserts. If it reminds us of home and happier times, it’s comfort food.

DSC00556Simple is the key, so any plain meat, (or meat that seems plain when you don’t have to actually MAKE it) like hot-dogs, or meatloaf, are what we crave when we come in from the chill. Fried foods, from chicken to pancakes call out to us “Come, you remember how good we are… we will make you happy! We will take you back home. You will be young again!” And I don’t think they lie, in the soul of the food, it is true.

At this time of year I drink gallons of teas, cocoa, and soups- from onion to thick DSC00134potato soup. I also go back and re-read favorite books, and wear old favorite clothing. Holidays are wonderful, but they can be over stimulating. This is a time for being, not so much under stimulated, but soothed. This is the time to find your comfortable spot- whatever it is for you, and go there. You are not going to be doing this forever. Once you’ve rested here awhile, you’ll discover that your book doesn’t engross as much as the new light shining on the far wall, your feet are telling you to throw off the fuzzy slippers and find your hiking boots. Strangely you’ll see that you don’t feel like another cup of tea no matter how much that sticky bun is just like the one’s gram used to make, instead, you’re eager to take a stroll and see if there are any fresh green things poking up out of the melting snow.  Be reassured, just as winter doesn’t last forever, neither does this quiet time.  Rejoice in it, indulge in it, wallow in it, This is temporary, and necessary- like everything else. To every thing there is a season. And this is the season for comfort food.

2 thoughts on “Comfort Food

  1. Lovely post. And now I want something to eat…

    The one thing I found myself wondering was what if your comfort food, your ancestoral food is not simple, but complex. Is your hunger in the dark times of the year still for simple things, or do you hunger for the complex dishes that your elders made for you?

    • Sometimes they were complex- heck, lots of things like hot dogs or meatloaf are complex if you are actually making them from scratch. But I think a lot of it frames us in the “you’re a kid and you’re mother is serving this to you” role. Another thing I thought about after posting it is that many comfort foods are not bland- what could be more warming than a pot of chili or jumbalaya or maybe curry? But I think those may be because the culture considers the spiciness a given for good food. It’s really personal, isn’t it?

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