Sunday, October 17, 2010

Comfort Food ???

I saw this piece about comfort food at and it got me thinking about what ‘comfort food’ means. Well, after some thought I’ve decided that comfort food has a few different personalities. One is nice, sweet and sincere, another is unhealthy yet therapeutic, and yet another is out to get your money (aka get me a pay check). Let me share what I’ve found.

The pairing of the words comfort and food first appeared in Webster’s Dictionary in 1977 and refers to food that improve one’s emotional state, sense of well-being, or comfort…go figure. It is a rather current development that American chef’s in an effort to define ‘American cuisine’ invented a fine dining model of comfort food that includes expert cooking, quality ingredients, but also higher prices compared to the Mom & Pop places costumers previously went for comfort food. What it comes down to from my viewpoint is that in the past comfort food at a restaurant might have consisted of instant mashed potatoes topped with a goopy brown graves and beef meatloaf topped with ketchup, costing you about $7. Today, and in the same fashion we have been tricked with horribly effective marketing that we will be comforted spending $34 on Yukon gold whipped potatoes topped with Veal demi-glace and truffled veal meatloaf under a heirloom tomato compote…Oh, and it will be even better paired with a silky smooth bottle of Siler Oak wine. I agree and I’m sure most readers agree that the second option sounds just divine, but why? Whicked nasty marketing, the boys down in R&D got the mission accomplished.

How could something that is supposed to make you feel emotionally good be physically unhealthy? Well it is all about where we look for comfort. What isn’t comforting to anyone…and I mean anyone? Let’s start with some rice wafers with fake cheese flavoring, some raw carrots, yogurt, and alfalfa sprouts. Does that sound like it would make you feel better? No, it sounds like a colon cleanse. What does sound good and consequently make us feel good unfortunately does not turn out to be very healthy. It doesn’t take much explaining really. Just think chocolate, ice cream, chips, Big Mac, even ‘Happy Hour’ are things we all take comfort in but turn on us after consumption. According to good ole’ Wikipedia somewhere around 33% of college age women make healthy eating choices when looking to improve their mental well being.

So what is that nice, sweet and sincere part that was mentioned? It all looks like cloaks and mirrors of unhealthy eating and overspending all of a sudden. Do not distress. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. What brings me comfort in the culinary world? Surely it isn’t the duck confit, grilled pizza, or vegetable pie as Epicurious might have you think. What brings me comfort is what I grew up on. Whatever it is that my mom pieced together after work that we shared as a family all sitting at one table. Sure at the time I would rather have played football in the street with by buddies or kicking my sister under the table or done anything else than eat what my mom made while not understand why dad was so grumpy (I understand now, The Grind). So what really brings me comfort in food and for most readers who fall into the same generation/economic class? I’ll start with city chicken, that shit is good. Taco night and we are talking straight Ortega out of the box powdered taco blend! The f’ing shells always broke, but a scoopable mixture of meat, cheese and sour cream was fine. Lastly is Beef Stew, which is very basic yet executed to a tee even under a chef’s scrutiny? Plus I learned from my father, to the chagrin of my mother that mashing up the vegetables and meat made something of a homogenous porridge that tasted even better than eating all the pieces parts separately.

Comfort food is quite diverse. Does Epicurious hit the nail on the head? Not a chance, but I still like Epicurious. Can dumfoundedly mixed results be expected from our comfort food habits? Yes! Yet Mom is most likely still the best cook we know.


Scott Sebastian said...

Hi Mike,

Am I missing something or are you not linked to Ruhlman anymore?

Michael Walsh said...

Looks like a keen observation. No wonder my hits went down by ten a week. It was cool while it lasted.

I have not been all that consistant with my posts as of late so I don't blame anyone for not checking back. My camera busted and I can't afford a new one so no pics. All the while i'm working on the line 9 hours a day six days a week. Honestly...I need some time to NOT think about food when i'm at home on the computer. But I still find the time every now and then.

Scott Sebastian said...

He's a dick anyway.

Michael Walsh said...

I respectfully disagree, but everyone is due their opinion.

I'm no literary historian but it seems to be that in the modern era Ruhlman has played a hand in trasnforming how people both write about and read about cooking, chefs, professional kitchens, and the culinary arts in general.

The Ruhlman blog is also quite nice. He offers up a lot of quality info on a consistant basis.

Thinking about culinary literature I would say in my time Dornenburg and Page, Keller, Bourdain, and Ruhlman have been the ones to really push the envelope and present something unique. I mean how many Emeril cookbooks can you buy before you just start hitting yourelf in the head with them? And that goes for every run of the mill, smiling chef, fake food photo's kind of cookbook. Sure there are people who are going to buy them, but they don't really engage you, make you think for yourself. As I look at my cookbooks the names like Trotter, Colicchio, and even Larousse are in the stacks, but they are all just really really nice recpie collections.

That is my opinon at least.

Scott Sebastian said...

I haven't read any of his books but what I have read, seen and heard, he seems to me to be a soft handed outsider who despite hanging out with celebrity chefs doesn't really grasp the concept of professional cooking. He's tainted by the cooking elite. That's the world he's comfortable in, not mine or 95% of pro cooks out there.

Also his demographic seems to be housewives and foodies. I don't fall into either category.

I also have the luxury of saying what I think without the worry of it biting me in the ass some day.

I also admit "dick" might be a bit strong. How about "wous"?

Scott Sebastian said...

I forgot, he's a Cleveland boy. Pretty popular locally I suppose.