That's a lot to ask from a single term.
For the last few days, I've been asking people around town who work in the food business to tell me what comes to mind when they hear the term, "comfort food." Some start by naming favorite dishes; others describe the qualities of comfort food, or the emotions they feel after eating a comforting meal. The food and the ambience both play a part in the comfort level of any dining experience. Comfort food seems to be one of those things (like pornography) -- we know it when we see it, but we sure need a lot of words to describe it.
Down Home Comfort
In the heart of Hillyard's historic district, across from the Capitol tavern and down the block from the Comet, sits the century-old Nebraska Hotel, originally built to house workers from the rail yards. On the main floor is MA BARKER'S CAF & Eacute;, a spare blue-paneled room with eight tables, a four-stool counter, and an old-style milkshake mixer with oversized metal cups. The setting may have a vintage appearance, but it's up-to-date, too -- the caf & eacute; is a wi-fi hotspot.
When owner Carter Deshler (who resembles the caf & eacute;'s namesake) thinks of comfort food, she thinks of chicken pot pie and anything with gravy and vegetables. "We do special gravies for every kind of meat," she says. "Especially in the cold months, people really like that." The caf & eacute;'s chili and homestyle soups are also favorites among customers.
Server Mary Ann Bolter remembers her Sicilian mother's home cooking, and that's the standard she uses to measure comfort food.
"Comfort food evokes safety and security feelings, knowing that someone loves you," she says. "Comfort food is like giving myself a big, warm hug."
Bolter loves talking with some of the older customers who tell her the food reminds them of what their mothers and grandmothers used to cook. "They get this faraway look in their eyes when they're remembering, and even when they're looking at you, you can see the memories churning in their eyes," she says. "If I can make someone feel good by thinking about good memories, then I did my job for the day."
At JUST AMERICAN DESSERTS in Spokane Valley, Eva Roberts makes some of the most sinfully delicious desserts around, so it's probably not surprising that she thinks sweet first when she thinks comfort. "Bread pudding, or pudding cakes," she says. "Chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes. Gravy. Biscuits, with butter and honey. Hearty simple food that's not too contrived. Local food. Farm food."
For Roberts, quality is key. "Food is my passion, and my motto is quality ingredients -- whether it's a gravy or a pie crust, make everything from scratch with the real ingredients."
Roast Beast Comfort
Next door, at the end of the Appleway couplet, CUPPA JOE'S CAF & Eacute; has been steadily gaining clientele for the past six years. Owner Joe Williams, formerly of Manito Country Club, roasts beef, turkey and chicken daily in the caf & eacute; kitchen and then uses the pan drippings as the basis for his daily soups. That attention to detail -- and the marvelous aroma -- has earned him a loyal following.
"I wanted to cook my own roast beef, because everyplace else, it's all packaged and pre-cooked," he says. He roasts turkey breasts and slices them up fresh from the oven for sandwiches. "It makes a difference. You don't get that gelatin -- you actually get the turkey, like if your mom was cutting it for you."
Williams says comfort food means fresh food made from scratch. "Comfort to me is something you can trust," he says. "There's a trust issue. A good, quality homestyle meal, it's like something your mom could've made for you."
Grandma's Farmhouse Comfort
Sometimes that nostalgia goes back another generation, like at CHAPS, Celeste Shaw's tribute to her grandmother's Montana home.
"I think comfort food is something that's familiar by the smell, the touch, the texture, the taste," she says. "It makes you feel... real. And it's so unpretentious. There's no air with comfort food. It is what it is. It's made with what you know. It's pleasing to see."
The meals at Chaps -- whether breakfast or lunch -- come on oversized stoneware plates with Western-themed patterns. There's warm oatmeal and blueberry muffin French toast on the breakfast menu, and sandwich classics like meatloaf, a Reuben and a BLT for lunch. The meatloaf comes from an old family recipe, and Chef Dave Norman cooks up a soup from scratch every day.
"The food has to fit the theme of your place," says Norman. "I built things that I thought would go well with the theme."
There's no fancy strategy to menu planning, he adds. "Both Celeste and I are simple people. Does it sell? Yes? Then don't do anything to it."
Of course, comfort is about more than food -- the environment has to be welcoming, says Shaw. "It's coming into a place that feels safe and inviting," she says. "I think you should be able to come as you are. I want to go to a place where I don't feel I have to dress up. I don't want to be judged whether I'm good enough to be there." At Chaps, she says, "I like knowing that if someone came in, and they weren't OK, that I can feed them and they might be a little better than when they came in."
At the Davenport Hotel, the staff of the PALM COURT GRILL caters to the whims and cravings of those temporarily living in nearly 500 guest rooms in two buildings, especially at odd hours. "We have to be ready for just about everything," says restaurant manager Trevor Green.
What about those 2 am munchie attacks? "We have a late-night menu, and we try to accommodate guests the best we can," he says. "The biggest thing late at night [is] people want pizza -- we go through a lot of pizza in the middle of the night."
During dining hours, the Palm Court serves up basics like a cheeseburger and fries, a French dip sandwich or the marvelous tomato-basil soup. "We get people who miss having a cheeseburger," says Green. "Our goal is to get them whatever they want, but to make it better than they're used to."
Fine Dining Comfort
"If the ingredients are great, and they get to taste like what they are, that's comfort food," says Marcia Bond of LUNA. "I think comfort food goes back to one's mother and grandmother, and to home cooking."
Her husband William, a neurologist, says comfort food can't be analyzed intellectually -- it strikes a chord deep in the brain, where memories and emotions are linked with smells and tastes.
"I think comfort food has to be part of the memory bank," he says. And while the memories may lie deep, the flavors that trigger that flood of warm recollections are anything but simple, he suggests. "I don't think there's anything simple about a good meatloaf, or a pot roast."
Chef Kevin Gillespie, originally from Georgia and newly arrived from Portland, says that pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, is comfort food to him. "It has all of that depth, a lot of spice in it, and so it really warms you up," he says. "I also think of things I had as a child in the South. But to me, comfort food is something that, when you eat it, you don't feel intimidated. And it gives you this ability to transcend where you are and puts you at some sort of inner peace."
Now that's comfort.
Conversation at Luna 10/7/07
Marcia Bond, owner
William Bond, owner
John Brogna, manager
Kevin Gillespie, executive chef
Ann M. Colford, The Inlander
Ann: Marcia, you said you started asking people about comfort food when you knew we'd be talking about this?
Marcia: Yeah, I started asking people, "So what's comfort food to you?" And I thought it was cute, my friend started with a warm cozy sweater and -- meatloaf.
A: Meatloaf is definitely one of the comfort food classics.
M: It makes me think of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. There's a great article in last Wednesday's New York Times food section on some restaurant that has grilled cheese sandwiches, and they're adding short ribs to it, and there was one ... adding golden raisins. And they were saying that the nature of these sandwiches is that they are rich. And more rich and more rich. I think a grilled cheese sandwich is comfort food because it's rich. It's cheesy, it's buttery...
A: Oh, yeah. When we were planning out this section ... grilled cheese was right at the top of the list. Meat and gravy -- pot roast, chicken fried steak ... So what is comfort food for you?
M: I think for me it means just great slow food, cooked dishes, like a great stew, a great, long-cooked chicken and wine, a traditional coq au vin, things that are slow, where you just have bread and you sop it up. And potatoes, like twice-stuffed baked potatoes -- I dream of those!
A: I love those!
M: Because I think there's a full portion of comfort food that goes back to one's mother and grandmother, and the home cooking.
M: That's really a big part of that, don't you think?
A: Yeah, I think there's that nostalgia, and people start talking about childhood. Like William, saying [a minute ago] that he grew up in Memphis. That's the connection.
M: And that is comfort food. But I think the trend is bigger than that. ... I think we don't want to deconstruct our food anymore, these tall, towering things -- I think we just want food that has great, great flavor, flavor that's just to the top, things that are just good together.
A: Flavors that have had time to blend, to meld?
M: Things that just taste good. Basically, comfort food -- the essence of it -- is what we're all going back to. It's food that is what it is. So like, if it's mashed potatoes, you don't need a whole lot of stuff added to it. You want to know you're eating potatoes. It's the same thing with a French fry, you just want a great French fry with just the right amount of salt on it.
A: You have French fries on your regular menu, right?
M: [nodding] We love French fries.
A: That's one of the comfort foods I missed in this issue ... But one of these days, I want to do something on where you can find good French fries, the kind that you can tell are really made from potatoes.
M: And you really taste the potatoes. [Chef] Kevin Gillespie is a great one to talk to about potatoes, because he has a way -- he made them for us the other day, and we just said, oh, my goodness, these are to die for ... They're really good. And they had just the right amount of salt on them. But if the ingredients are great, and they get to taste like what they are, that's comfort food.
A: Yeah, and I think the things that are cooked a long time, like you were saying, they're warm, they're tender, and the flavors have merged and blended, condensed and reduced down to their essence ... I'm thinking, like, roasts. Roasted something. So you've got the really rich pan juices and the flavors that merge with the meat and the vegetables, and everything influences everything else, and it works.
M: My sister-in-law and I were ... talking about [William's] Aunt Nell's Sunday Pot Roast. She lived in Memphis. And we both said that if we could order anything at all for comfort food, that's what we would have.
A: Pot roast. Yeah. How did she make it?
M: She would start the night before. She'd brown a really fat, cheap piece of beef.
A: That's the thing for pot roast.
M: She said you had to have that bone, and you had to have that fat. She was total believer in it. She'd salt and pepper it heavily, brown it at high heat, put it in the oven -- she never used any wine, she'd just put in some water, and the vegetables. She'd put it in a 200- or 250-degree oven overnight.
A: Did she cook it uncovered or covered?
M: Covered, in a big, old, heavy cast iron pot. It was unbelievable ...
M: [to William, who joined the conversation] We're talking about comfort food.
A: Yes, if I threw that term out to you, William, what comes to mind?
William: Well, you know what I think it is, Ann -- I think comfort food has to be part of the memory bank. I don't think you could go to Russia and have a dish with a name you didn't know, and a piece of meat you hadn't had, and vegetables that were unfamiliar -- I don't think that could be comfort food ... Sometimes, I think, well, it's simple food that's neat and savory. But I think it's a food that makes a "ching-ching" in your memory bank. I feel pretty good with that idea. And then when I start thinking about it, and people talk about meatloaf -- well, I don't think meatloaf would be a comfort food to someone who grew up as a vegetarian. Even if they've made the shift [to eating meat], I don't think it would work for them. I think they'd go back to a nut loaf, or something like that.
A: Something that was more part of their childhood?
W: That might be an interesting pursuit, to ask ...
A: Most food I think about as comfort food has a marvelous aroma to it...
M: I've been thinking that, also. Smell...
A: And smell is directly connected to old memories, am I right, William?
W: That's right. I was saying about this some time ago -- comfort food isn't something that happens in the frontal cortex. It happens down deep, in the amygdala and temporal lobes, the hippocampus and so forth.
A: The seat of emotion?
W: Emotion and smells are all there together.
M: Marcel Proust -- in his famous book, it's all about the smell. Smell and memory ... so I think definitely smell... it leads you to remember when you took the lid off the can where the cookies had been made by your grandmother, and those were the best sugar cookies ever made -- that's a total, great comfort.
A: I've been thinking a lot about the interconnections of memory and ... the role that plays in comfort food ... and finding those links.
W: You know, I'm thinking you could not have comfort food if it was a dish you had never had before in your life.
M: Oh, absolutely. Comfort food is -- to have a memory, that with which you are familiar.
W: It's familiar, and it allows you to skip the thought process about what green leaf is that -- the academic part of nouveau cuisine.
A: And jump straight to the flavors and the emotional reaction?
W: Yeah. Although, you know, I remember as a boy, we were in Memphis, but we would go to New Orleans quite a bit, and one of the joys for my mother and father was the new food, and the new tastes and the things they don't normally have... so there is the excitement of the cerebral eating.
A: So I guess it depends on your emotional state at the time, and what it is you're looking for.
W: It may be that without having those new things that are complicated, that you have to think about -- without having them, you're not then able to fully go for comfort when you don't realize it's comfort food. If you're not coming back to it from some other culinary place, then you don't get it.
A: Yeah, that may be right. [The new flavors] set the context for the familiar and give you a wider world to look at ...
W: Do many people think [comfort food] is something simple?
A: Yeah, simple, familiar, consistent, nostalgic, tapping into memories of childhood...
W: I don't think it has anything to do with simple, and I'll tell you why. I don't think there's anything simple about a good meatloaf. Or a good pot roast. The simplicity is that you don't have to write the recipes down; the flavors are very crucial. [Use] the wrong piece of meat, and the pot roast becomes awful.
A: We were just talking about that with pot roast -- that it has to be a fatty piece of meat with a bone in it.
M: I told her about Aunt Nell's.
W: Not only fatty, but collagen, I think ... when it melts, the collagen gives a high degree of savory flavor. ... They're not just simple flavors; they're flavors that really work to make a memory and last a lifetime.
M: And they do last a lifetime. A great example is everyone's variation of how they like their stuffing at Thanksgiving.
A: Oh, my God, if you want to start an argument...
W: Like with guns!
M: They're territorial ... like when the in-laws get together, and everybody cooks it their way, and one says, "We never put sage in ours," and the other says, "Oh, we did, we put lots in" ...
W: We've gone to a lot of Thanksgiving dinners where there are two or three different dressings ...
[Executive Chef Kevin Gillespie and Manager John Brogna join the discussion. After chatting about foods from Chile and El Salvador, contrasted with Mexican food, we got back to comfort food.]
Kevin: I like food that's warming ... In the fall and winter, it's nice to have food that literally warms up your body. I don't think it needs to be as complicated in the fall and the winter. I think what you're looking for is more levels of depth of flavor, [rather] than something that blows you away.
A: So if I throw out that phrase -- "comfort food" -- what does that bring forth for you?
K: When I think of comfort food, I don't think of specific dishes -- though sometimes certain dishes echo of that comfort -- but for me comfort food is any sort of food that gives you that warm and fuzzy on the inside, regardless of what it is. So, like you said the Salvadoran food has become comfort food to you, even though at first it was foreign, for me something I think of as comfort food is pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup, because it has all of that depth. It has a lot of spice in it, so it really warms you up. I also think of things I had as a child in the South, too. But to me comfort food is something that, when you eat it, you don't feel intimidated, firstly, and secondly, it gives you this ability to transcend where you are and puts you at some sort of inner peace...
M: That's an important part of comfort food -- to transcend where you are now. I like that.
W: See, we're together on this. It's not simple. It doesn't have to be simple.
K: Right. No, it doesn't have to be simple food.
W: In fact, quite frequently, it's complicated.
A: And I think you made a good point, Kevin -- there's a depth of flavor to it. It's not that it's necessarily a complicated combination or preparation...
W: No, not a complicated thing to do... but its taste is complex.
K: A lot of people in this country assume that when you talk about comfort food, the only foods you could be talking about are fried chicken, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese. And that's not necessarily true. Although that is comfort food for some people, I think it has to do with how you grew up -- if you have not known a lot else, then maybe that is your comfort food. But I think comfort food is different for each person. It depends on what has had that ability to strike that nerve inside them that puts them at some form of peace, whatever that may be. For me, it is some of the foods I grew up with -- I do think of some of the soups, and one that I always think of as comfort food is [a dish] my granny used to make that she called "One-Pot Hog Dish."
A: I love the name!
K: It's pork skin and fatback that's fried, and that's the bottom layer, and then it's sliced tomatoes, sliced cabbage, potatoes, and then the liquid that she would have left over from when she cooked greens -- that goes in there. And then it just cooks like that without being stirred.
W: Almost like a terrine.
K: Sort of. It cooks down to be sort of like a casserole, but it's soupier, and then you just kind of scoop it out.
M: Oh, my gosh, that sounds good.
K: So it's things like that that take me back. And that is a very Southern dish unto itself.
A: You know, another element of comfort food that comes up sometimes is the idea of making do with what you've got. And in that dish, you got the fatback -- and that's something, you know, for big families, who might not have access to a lot of other kinds of meats...
John: In the Depression era, they were very creative with that kind of thing.
A: Exactly. So you get those dishes that provide you with that warm, savory richness, the flavor of the fat, the caloric value -- which was truly what people needed -- and those dishes, then, have carried forward.
J: My grandmother made a tuna fish spaghetti when they didn't have beef available, and it's still cooked to this day in our family. It's funny, you don't think of tuna fish going with marinara sauce...
A: It's pretty traditional Italian, though.
J: Yes, very.
M: You know, this is so much fun, we ought to do one night a week as comfort food night! ...
K: I think the quality of comfort food, as opposed to more intellectual food -- I think a lot of chefs these days like to make their food the opposite of comfort food. They try to make food that has the ability to strike a mood swing in someone. I think they shoot for intimidation in some ways. A good example is Alinia, in Chicago. He purposely designed his restaurant so when people walk in the front door, they don't know if they're in the right place. It doesn't look like a restaurant. It's meant to confuse people, so they leave their idea of what to expect at the door, theoretically. And then he bombards them with food at the beginning that is meant to be something they wouldn't understand, like banana and parsley -- something that you'd think to yourself, "How does this even work?" It works on a chemical level, but he does that intentionally because I think he wants to make people uncomfortable, so they can open their minds up.
And that has its place. But the thing about comfort food is its ability to not scare you, not intimidate you, and even if it's something that you haven't had before, if you're not familiar with the dish, it has the ability to just -- when you eat it, you feel as though everything else kind of makes sense. It takes away the intimidation of that meal, whatever it is, regardless of whether you're eating it for the first time, in a restaurant you've never eaten in before, or a cuisine you've never eaten. I think that's the amazing part about comfort food, is that it has the ability to invoke all those senses and emotions, regardless of whether or not it's something that you grew up with.
M: Well, and there's the quest to have that experience with food. It's like to find that book. To get to eat that dinner.
W: So how does it work at that restaurant? Do they get a lot of return calls?
K: Yes, but they get it because his restaurant is supposed to be about more than just eating. He's taking it to a whole other level. He's one of those gastronomic chefs who feels that the direction food is in nowadays is boring, and so it should be taken somewhere else. So things that should be solid are liquid, things that should be liquid are gas...
J: It's an artistic endeavor.
K: ... things that would be crunchy are soft, things like that. And he does all these things to shape-shift food, to change it ...
J: So, Ann -- comfort contemporary food. Is that possible?
A: For me, comfort food is... it's familiarity of flavors. It's consistency. It's not being intimidated. It's I know what to expect.
J: And blending that with a contemporary focus.
A: It can be. You know, I'm happy to walk into a diner and get pot roast...
J: And see exactly what you expected.
A: As long as it's made from scratch. It has to have that tie into the old--
M: Because it means quality.
A: It means quality. It's that old Betty Crocker 1950s cookbook that I've got sitting on my kitchen shelf.
J: And you use it.
A: And I use it ... So there's that big element of nostalgia that's in it for me, too. And memory. It hits you in an emotional place.
W: What struck me is what Kevin said, that one of his comfort foods is pho. I think the first time he had it, it wouldn't be a comfort food.
W: But it could become one. I don't think [the memory] has to come from childhood.
K: When you named all those traits of comfort food, I think the one that's tricky is familiarity. Because I think it doesn't have to be familiar to become comfort food ... And I think there are a lot of foods people ate growing up, and are familiar with, that would not classify as comfort foods.
W: You mean like Brussels sprouts?
K: Not very comfortable. I think of something like pepperoni pizza as not being comfort food, personally.
J: A hot dog isn't, for me, but it's still nostalgic.
K: It's nostalgic, you can still enjoy it on a deeper level, but it doesn't strike me as comfort food. And I think -- I don't know why that is.
M: Comfort food has more to it. It comes back to complexity. One hot dog doesn't do it.
K: Even though you might just love hot dogs, but it's something else. It's a deeper spot inside you. It's not just satisfaction. It satisfies something else inside you that hits you deeper. Often when I think of comfort food, especially if it's something that reminds me of my childhood, it's that it literally reminds me of my childhood. ... It brings up images.
A: It puts you right there.
K: It puts you in a different spot. It reminds me of being at my grandmother's house. It reminds me of being a small child sometimes. It reminds me of a particular moment in my life, and that might be one of the reasons why I like it so much. When I have it, it takes me to a different place, and it helps -- we keep saying the word, but it helps comfort you and put you in a different place. I think the amazing thing about comfort food, if it's prepared well, is that it often has the ability to fix external problems -- maybe a stressful day, a bad date, or whatever it may be. Sometimes meals, if they're done right -- and we shoot for this as restaurateurs -- have the ability to send the person away in a lot better place than they were when they got here.
M: I like that.