Monday, March 8, 2010

Comfort Food

We all enjoy comfort foods. These are foods that we eat, that sustain us, but that lie beyond aesthetic judgement. Some are culturally bound, like Australians and their Vegemite (or worse, the Brits and their Marmite), but most seem idiosyncratic. Based on my own unscientific survey, comfort foods derive their identity largely because of their nostalgic associations. In other words, when I've asked why someone prefers a certain comfort food, the most common answer is, "It's what I ate as a kid."

My father tells me that his mother would make him onion sandwiches when he woke up with a late-night craving, adding that he credits its narcotic powers to the placebo effect. "What else would an onion sandwich be good for?" he adds. "It certainly wasn't that it tasted good." My mother is known to heat a bowlful of rice onto which she splashes some soy sauce whenever she feels a little peckish. A girl I know likes ham sandwiches made with white bread and butter. It's what she eats when she can't decide what to eat, and, she swears, it always satisfies.

Each of us has that inner menu that we order from when the need arises. For me, when I'm at home, it's peanut-butter sandwiches or ramen noodles or eggs with toast. When I'm out, it's pancakes or fried rice or an old-fashioned diner cheeseburger (the kind that's a large, flat patty fried up on a griddle, with toasted buns & single slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion -- not those nasty approximations you get from the fast-food chains). Strangely, these choices seem not to come from my childhood; they come from my long career as an undergraduate, when my menu choices were determined by my circumstances as a hardscrabble college student.

Now it would be wrong to eat food that you don't enjoy (unless you're talking about taking a bite of something new to see if you'll like it). But people who gulp down a combo from the drive-thru with no enjoyment mystify me. This was something I witnessed a lot when I was a infantryman in the workaday wars: people swallowing chunks of crap just so they could quickly waddle back to their workspaces. Eating something just to ingest some nutrients and calories, to me, reduces life to a mere existence. We may as well be robots, switching out our batteries when they run out of charge.

But my point is this: not every meal needs to be a quest for the culinary sublime. And it's no waste of time to reach for the tried-and-true. Sometimes we need to wallow in some mindless (but not soulless) comfort more than we need to test our gastronomic aesthetics. The food you eat may not be worthy of a Michelin star, but, if it excites those happy, warm fuzzies inside, then I say eat yourself silly.

I'll take a hot, buttered short-stack and a tall glass of cold milk. Anytime. Day or night.

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