In producing my foodcast, Comfort Zone, the constant question people have been asking me is, what is comfort food exactly?
Ratatouille’s Anton Ego and Comfort Food
When I think of comfort food, the first thing that now comes into my mind is the Disney animated feature, Ratatouille. I remember Anton Ego, the restaurant critic and antagonist, whose cynicism all melts away like butter on a hot pan, when he is served Ratatouille, cooked the way his mother used to do so when he was a little boy. The dish evokes nostalgia.
Ironically, it is a simple dish like Ratatouille that brings him comfort and a 180-degree turnaround. Not a sophisticated, intricately-plated dish – but a simple dish.
So what is comfort food? The dictionary actually has a definition for it. Comfort food is food that is: 1) simply prepared; 2) gives a sense of wellbeing; and 3) associated with childhood or with home cooking.
Now, I laughed when I continued reading: It is typically food with a high sugar or carbohydrate content! There goes your low carb diet, people! Well, I know of many comfort dishes that are low on sugar and carbs. One of these days, I’ll make them on the show.
I pretty much agree with the first three points listed. Comfort food, first and foremost, brings comfort. And when one needs comfort, and an instant sense of wellbeing, the dish has to be simple and easy to prepare – at least when you are the one cooking it. I would say though that while comfort food is yes, evokes childhood memories or home cooking, I’d say that comfort food can cover much more. It can evoke fond memories of a place you have been too and love.
Or sometimes, it is the delicious result of following one’s instincts, one’s sense of taste, of following what one wants to smell, and see at a particular time — and being happy with all of these.
So I would say that comfort food is not just eating. It is an art in itself, a way of expression. Many people express themselves through poetry, through paintings, or through music. In my case, my canvass or medium is the plate and what I put in it. And yes, art soothes the heart and soul too. I know of people who enjoy comfort food more for the cooking than the eating itself.
There has been a lot of discussion on how to categorize comfort food, and such discussion, not surprisingly, has made it to wikepedia. There has been an attempt to categorize comfort food into 1) nostalgic foods, indulgence foods, convenience foods, and physical comfort foods. This makes sense, although personally, I am still wary about placing comfort food into precise categories. Art, as a lot of people would argue, cannot be boxed or categorized easily. I would also say that many dishes are a combination of the different categories.
What I do know for sure is that comfort food is very much subjective. In the end, it is the person eating who determines what comfort food is and the best way it is eaten. It depends on one’s culture, upbringing, and other preferences. Some find comfort in cooking instant dishes, while a lot of people find satisfaction in being able to make complicated dishes — I find myself shifting from one end to another depending on my mood. Some people don’t even want to cook, and instead, just want to eat the dish at a restaurant or take out. This is just as fine.
And because moods cab easily change, comfort food will have its different functions. On some nights, we just need pure physical-emotional comfort. On some days, we want to celebrate memories of childhood or family.
The truth is, prior to watching Ratatouille, I had never eaten the dish. Or at least, I don’t recall eating it prior to watching the film. If I had eaten it in the past, the one who cooked it didn’t do anything special with it. But then, the animated feature did heighten my curiosity about the dish, and so, I looked for a recipe online.
I was disappointed. “This is ratatouille?” I thought to myself. “This is what the big deal is all about? Seriously?” I wasn’t impressed about the dish. But before I missed the point, I got it. Comfort food is how you define it.
Comfort Food and Relationships
What I find striking about the definition of comfort food is that there is not mention about the food that we cook and eat and its effect on relationships. I believe that comfort food is not limited to our own personal comfort, but also that of others. Food brings people together.
And come to think of it, whether people admit it or not, a lot of people come to parties precisely because of the food! But of course, the good thing is that with this, relationships are built and strengthened. I made a lot of good friends – my best friends – because food had served as a catalyst in bringing us together.
So, comfort food is a dish that your family and friends love – a dish that brings people together and makes them happy.
Comfort Food vs. Emotional Eating
Some psychologists argue that the consumption of (comfort) food has a strong relation to feelings of guilt as well as overeating. Some people blame comfort food for emotional eating. I beg to disagree. A distinction has to be made between comfort food vs. emotional eating and overeating. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying food, of using it to feel that you are really enjoying life. But while food helps at many times us cope with our difficulties, it is the emotions that are often unchecked and not addressed that are the true culprit – not food per se.
I know emotional eating from my own experience because to a certain extent, I had struggled with it too. I am only human. In fact, I have, unfortunately, gained weight over the years because of “enjoying” food too much. Many people around me blame my cooking and eating as a reason why I gained weight. But I realize that it is not food or comfort food that has caused this. It has been the issues that I have been failing to address. I addressed them, and binges are almost a thing of the past. So the good news is, at the very least, I don’t need to make pasta as a midnight snack every night anymore so that I can feel better about myself! Haha!
The trouble, I realize, is when we use comfort food to solve whatever emotional baggage we have. Food is not a solution to problems. Sure, food can be a good temporary remedy, but not a permanent solution. The big but also is — you need eat in moderation but not overeat. Why? Because by overeating, you compromise on health, and you will feel the guilt. The guilt can come instantly at the end of the meal. Or, it can come a month after when you wake one morning to realize that you’ve already gained 10 lbs, and at which point you ask, “What have I done to myself?” And the guilt can sometimes be worse than the original problem! So it is always important to be cautious about mindless cravings. There is a need to step back before one eats. There is a need to quickly ask, why do I want to eat this now? Why do I feel I want to eat a lot?
So is there something wrong if one eats during stress or sad? Not at all! And I want to be very, very clear about this. Eat! And I would encourage one to do so, as long as one recognizes the causes behind the emotions and deals with it. Eat but not overeat. Determine the right proportion before you eat. And aside from eating, there is a need to find other productive ways to deal with stress. Personally, exercise works for me, and it allows me to eat because I make sure that I burn what I have been eating.
The wonderful thing about being able to deal with emotional eating is that one can now enjoy comfort food for what it truly should be – being able to nourish oneself and the people you are surrounded with.
As of this writing, I have lost 23 lbs. in three months’ time because I’ve been more careful about eating. I have a long way to go, I know. But with the right mindset about food, lifestyle, and weight loss, the journey is a lot of fun. I have chosen to take a more active lifestyle. The funny and ironic thing is, I continue to lose weight while I now host a show and have a blog that requires me to eat different dishes at a time.
The great Julia Child never compromised on her cooking and eating. And yes, a lot of people find her enormous use of butter scary. But hey, she lived up to age 90. Her secret and constant advice: eating in moderation.
A Final Note
God made food delicious for a reason. For starters, how can we get ourselves nourished and how would we ever survive if everything tastes horrid? God created food for nourishment both for the body and yes, soul. Food recharges our bodies and minds. It enriches relationships. In fact, when you think about it, you will notice that Jesus Christ, during time with us on earth, made good relationships with people by dining with them, and feeding them. And He even left the greatest sacrament in the form of a meal or banquet. In short, God created food for our comfort.
So, let’s celebrate comfort food. In the end, comfort food is how you define it. But most importantly: it is how you use it to make your life better, more exciting, more worthwhile – and how you use it to enrich the lives of the people around you.