Sometimes we need comfort food

Janice Lindsay

A chef, an acquaintance, told me he was working at a busy small café where they offered gourmet-type sandwiches like roast beef with horseradish mayo, or ham and cheddar with maple mustard, along with various quiches and other enticing lunches.

One day, on a whim, they offered hot dogs with macaroni and cheese. They expected to serve about eight; they served 32. On another day, they offered tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, another bestseller.

No matter how delicious and imaginative the choices are, sometimes we need plain old comfort food.

My dictionary defines “comfort food” as “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.”

When we’re stymied by life’s uncertainties, discouraged, or worried, we seek solace in foods that calm us down or pick us up.

Ah, yes, macaroni and cheese. (I refuse to say “mac” because “macaroni” rolls so smoothly, comfortingly, deliciously, around on my tongue.) One of my favorite comfort foods is my grandmother’s version of baked macaroni and cheese. She layered the macaroni and cheddar in a heavy brown-glazed bean pot, topping each layer with chopped canned tomatoes instead of milk. She spread American cheese slices on the top, baking until the casserole grew bubbly and cheese toasted. Mmm.

Hot grilled cheese sandwiches, both gooey and crunchy. Add tart, creamy tomato soup and you lack for nothing.

Corn chowder, with a thick milk base, potatoes, onions, and lots of corn kernels that burst in your mouth.

Milk toast. Milk toast? How did that get in there? When my sister and I were little, whenever we were sick, my mother offered us milk toast. It was her own comfort food. In our opinion, she could have it. We thought toast soaked in hot milk was disgusting, even with salt. Apparently no comfort food is universally effective.

Tuna casserole, made with cream of celery soup, macaroni, and a crunchy, salty potato-chip topping. For full comfort, eat it with canned peas.

Ice cream. Once, during my regular physical, my doctor detected a suspicious lump. After some tests, doctor visits, and underlying worry and tension, I was declared okay. I hastened to Friendly’s for an anxiety-releasing hot fudge sundae with chocolate ice cream.

Chocolate, perhaps the ultimate comfort food, good for what ails you, for what used to ail you, and for whatever plans to ail you in the future.

Am I beginning to detect a pattern in some of these comfort foods? Maybe milk?

Milk was the first food for us all, when we were little and helpless and someone took care of us. Maybe milk-laden comfort foods bring back that feeling of being safe, when we grownups, who are supposed to take of ourselves and everybody else, feel little and helpless again. That’s only my theory. But Google “comfort foods” and see how many contain milk, including bread pudding and mashed potatoes.

Not all comfort foods share the milk connection: chicken soup, for instance, though that isn’t on my list. A poll of Americans might locate peanut butter somewhere on the list.

Every individual has favorite comfort foods, and so does every culture. Most of mine are admittedly New Englandish. As much as I love, for example, pizza, it’s not my choice for comfort food when life goes awry – except, of course, for that melty cheese on the top.