Taking the first bite of fried chicken or sticky-sweet barbecued ribs can transport us to a dimension where times past still exist in a kind of suspended animation. We remember family cookouts and snicker at visions of the token crass uncle wandering around in his sauce-stained button-up, exhorting children to "pull my finger." A sip of freshly squeezed lemonade puts us under the backyard sprinkler again, where we chased our best childhood friend, squealing and giggling under the wet spray.
Such is the nostalgic power of food. Food can heal. It can bring a loved one back to life, if only for a moment. It can make time stand still or rewind us to a time before the mortgage and the kids and the daily grind.
After years of adhering to a ridiculous no-cooking oath, I have turned to the kitchen for solace. My relationship with my kitchen has gradually evolved into an easy friendship. When I am lonely, the stovetop and oven beckon lovingly. My kitchen speaks in whispers: "You can commune with Great-Grandmother Pearl again. Cook a chicken pie."
The kitchen never lies. I stir the batter for the crust and almost hear my great-grandmother's voice and catch the scent of her favorite soap. If I listen closely, I can hear my great-grandfather's footfalls as he traverses from the rocker on the front porch to the propane-heated shelter of the kitchen. For a blessed moment, as I remove a freshly baked chicken pie from the oven, I reconnect with two people who had an expansive hand in my upbringing. Two of the few constants in my life remind me that they never truly left.
A pint of Ben & Jerry's caramel sutra ice cream heals achy muscles after a grueling string of 12-hour nursing shifts. I don't need to see research for proof. I've done plenty of couch-bound research to know it's my drug of choice. I recently received an envelope from Kroger, stuffed with coupons. I felt as if I'd won the lottery when I pulled a coupon for a free pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream or fro-yo.
My comfort foods have also evolved. A bout of sinus congestion spurs me to the Thai House for tom kha gai. I'm still intimidated by the prospect of putting my culinary savvy to the test to prepare this celestial soup. When done right, sweet and heat merge in a coconut-milk base to produce a fairy-tale taste-bud wedding. Clogged sinuses open, the body warms and all is well for a while. This Thai version of chicken soup has turned me away from the considerably tamer western versions I've sampled.
In the Deep South, food is a form of communication. We comfort the bereaved with caramel cake or a freezable casserole dish. We celebrate births with homemade spinach dips served up in bread bowls. We ring in a new year with platters of sausage balls and a Crock-Pot full of warm Ro-Tel dip and admonish partakers not to double dip. A flock of fried birds may inundate a fellow church member home from the hospital with a craving for fried chicken. Cooking often takes the place of heartfelt prose as we frantically scan the pages of our most tried and true cookbooks for the best combination of ingredients to convey our emotions.
Most comfort foods aren't elaborate or fancy, and we all have our own ideas of what constitutes the ideal comfort food. Two polar opposites might find common ground over a hash-brown casserole. Families reconnect around a table boasting the dishes they grew up with. Legacies are established and passed down in recipes our grandparents hastily jotted on scrap paper and stuffed in coffee cans. Ultimately, comfort food is love expressed in its edible form.
Why Does It Comfort?
Does a physiological explanation exist for the array of comfort food-evoked emotions? My Internet search yielded multitudes of blogs, accompanied by positively pornographic images of gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and sweet potato pies.
Merriam-Webster defines comfort food as "food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal." It's a relatively new concept. Merriam-Webster cites 1977 as the first year we used the term. The Oxford English Dictionary added it in 1997 and defined it as "food that comforts and affords solace." I noted without surprise that many foods identified with comfort are high in fat, sugar and carbohydrates.
We may be genetically hardwired to reach for the fatty-food offerings that bombard us on a regular basis. Consuming fat can actually improve our mood, suggests a study by Dr. Lukas Van Oudenhove at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
The study included 12 healthy, non-obese individuals who listened to sad or neutral music and viewed sad or neutral faces while a functional MRI scanned to document which areas of the brain lit up when individuals reported sadness. Researchers then fed subjects an infusion of either saline or fatty acid via feeding tubes. Those fed the fatty acids reported feeling half as sad as the participants who got the saline. With the feeding tube, researchers took taste buds out of the equation.
This study suggests that fat may play an important role in regulating our moods. Other research revealed that mice preferred fried potatoes instead of boiled potatoes.
The food industry capitalizes on our love of comfort foods. Most of us don't have to drive far to find an establishment serving up our favorites. If we'd prefer to prepare our own comforting concoctions, we have only to Google "comfort food" for a plethora of recipes to soothe our ailing souls.
Do we associate certain foods with safety? A Nielsen survey of grocery stores showed a spike in snack food and instant potato sales in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. After Hurricane Katrina, I frequented the Rally's drive-through more than I like to remember, devouring battered french fries slathered in ketchup and wolfing down double cheeseburgers as if an apocalypse was going to strike every Rally's off the face of the earth.
Will research provide us with a solution to our compulsion for our fat-, sugar- and salt-infused safety nets? Only time will tell. For now, I need some French toast, and it won't make itself.
Chicken Pot Pie
I love this chicken pot pie recipe I found in "Best of the Best from Bell's Best Cookbook" (Quail Ridge Press, 2006, $16.95) by Gayle Hall. Over time, I have made some changes to the recipe making it a little healthier than the original version by using organic and low sodium ingredients. Many grocery stores now sell organic, free-range chicken. It's more expensive, but worth the price in terms of flavor. Here is my healthy version of comfort in a casserole dish.
1 pound organic, free-range, boneless-skinless chicken breasts, cooked and cubed
4 hard-boiled organic, free-range eggs, sliced
1 cup low-sodium, organic, free-range chicken broth
1 10.75-ounce can low-sodium, organic cream-of-chicken soup
1 12-ounce bag frozen mixed vegetables, cooked
1 stick organic, unsalted butter
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup organic skim milk
salt and pepper to taste
Boil the chicken or sautee it in a light layer of oil. I saute my chicken in a skillet with a thin layer of canola oil on medium-low heat, and season it with salt, pepper and paprika.
Cut the cooked chicken into small cubes and layer it in a casserole dish. Layer egg slices over the chicken. In a separate bowl, mix broth, soup and vegetables. Pour this mixture over the chicken and eggs.
Melt butter and mix with flour and milk. The batter will be slightly lumpy. Pour batter over the top of the mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes or until the crust is browned.
This is so easy to make and wonderful to eat. You can opt for whole milk for a fluffier crust, but you can also cut back on the fat if you're willing to sacrifice some fluff and browning. For a thicker pie, cut back on the chicken broth.
Serves four to six.
Used with permission. Contact Quail Ridge Press at 800-343-1583 for more information.