I had the idea for an article about comfort food germinate several months ago, but I must confess that since that day my creativity remained inert. Little did I know that a rather unfortunate incident would be the catalyst that would inspire these words. Sparing you the details, on Christmas Day, I—who have not been sick in years—had a bout of stomach discomfort. Recoiling at the very notion of Christmas dinner, I told my husband that I never wanted "real food" again (not even cake) and that all I wanted was my "sick meal" from childhood—a boxed chicken-flavored noodle soup (with a "magic chicken bullion egg") and Saltine crackers. My husband, knowing that my diet does not typically include MSG-laden soups with lengthy ingredient lists, tried to reason with me, realizing that I must be quite ill to even request these items. Fortunately, this malaise soon passed and I was back to my usual gustatory preferences. However, my instant—almost primal—reverting to these childhood staples caused me to consider how deeply they are embedded in my psyche. It was not the food I was craving; rather, it was an emotion—the caring and comfort that I associated with it.
Homage to Proust and his madeleines: A remembrance of cinnamon rolls past…
If you think about your favorite comfort foods, you may realize that they not only fulfill a physical hunger, but may also transport you to another time. As many of you know, there is not always a logical rationale as to why a certain food holds such sway over our memories. Although I have not consumed one in years, I have fond memories of eating hot dogs as a child. What is so special about a hot dog you may ask? The taste and brand were irrelevant—the delight was the manner in which my nanny would prepare and serve them—cut two-thirds of the way up, lengthwise into eight thin strips, splayed on the plate—a mere hot dog suddenly became an octopus! I also remember eating canned cinnamon rolls with thick white icing with my Grandparents whenever we spent the night at their house. These sleepovers were rare and were the only times we ever ate this breakfast. Often, when I walk by an airport or food court cinnamon roll emporium and smell the wafting sweet and spicy air, I am transported to pajama-clad mornings with my Grandparents. Perhaps my most poignant food-related memory was the BLT sandwich my Gram made for me a few years ago when I was visiting her in Florida. The preparation was straightforward—white bread (toasted), mayo, tomato, iceberg lettuce, and bacon. Again, this sandwich is not something I would eat in "real life," but I was famished after a long day of travel. Not only did the BLT taste amazing (a Spanish proverb tells us that "hunger is the best sauce"), but I realized that it was the first time in several years that someone had taken the time to prepare me a meal (excluding restaurants). I keenly felt the love and intention that went into making that sandwich and although I have tried to recreate it at home (albeit with organic ingredients and artisan bread) it never evokes the same comforting memory.
The road to culinary comfort is paved with…
I am not alone in my deduction that feelings can be conveyed through food, as evidenced by an article I recently read about a chocolate company in California. Intentional Chocolate uses a device to "record" the positive thoughts and intentions of Buddhist monks and pipes them into their chocolate storage room. The chocolatier then conducted a study which concluded that eating one ounce of chocolate per day bolstered positive moods by an average of 67%. The article’s editors were skeptical of these results and conducted a similar experiment that indeed showed a surge in happiness…however, who can really be unhappy after consuming chocolate? (Source: O Magazine, September 2009, p. 142)
Whether you are an esoteric or a cynic, most agree that the intent with which food is prepared is communicated from inception to completion—from measuring cup to plate. I have personally witnessed that the results of my baking projects are significantly altered by my moods. Not only do some recipes abjectly fail, but even if they appear to be delicious, and I cannot taste the "love" in my food, I will discard the entire batch rather than impart any negativity to the recipients. From the earliest religions’ blessings (e.g. "grace") over meals to the chanting of contemporary Buddhist monks, the union between thought and food is immutable. This month, consider yourself a culinary alchemist with the power to create heartening and comforting meals for yourself and your loved ones. As with life, baking is a process—enjoy being "in progress."
Lee Picciuto can be reached at email@example.com and welcomes feedback and suggestions.