Comfort Food Rules

Lots of ingredients work, but one of the most common is Mom.

—Lily K. Morris

Comfort foods remind us of sometime in our past when food made us feel safe and protected and loved. Comfort food is about much more than nutrition or eating because you’re hungry. It helps if you’re hungry, but mostly so you can eat lots of it because that’s what you want to do. Who ever heard of eating a couple bites of comfort food? You eat to feel full, to get that feeling of being satiated, and to experience the pleasure of taste. Comfort foods should feel hefty in your belly. They seldom involve vegetables unless they also include lots of cheese or cream, or at least pasta. Comfort foods are the ones that stick to your bones, that warm the cockles of your heart.

Part of the comfort is that you don’t have to work too hard to produce the beloved food. If you’re slaving away in the kitchen before you get to enjoy it, there’s less feeling of being taken care of or nurturing oneself, and not enough comfort. The best is to have someone else make it.

Slip Away Farm owner Lily Walter lists chicken and dumplings as her number one comfort food, but she only ever eats it when her mom makes it. It has real solace power for Lily because it was a food her mother and her mother’s grandmother both made when she was growing up. Lily’s great grandmother lived in Poplar Bluffs, Missouri and had ten children and not a lot of money to feed her family. Chicken and dumplings was a filling favorite dish. 

The times that Lily says she feels drawn to eating comfort foods are, “If it’s cold, or there’s a change of weather, rainy weather, or I feel a little low. Also, when I’ve been really hungry for a few days in a row.” Nothing like chicken and dumplings to fill you up and make life seem ok again — but only if your mother is around.

My longtime friend Judith Roberts lists hot coffee with cream as her number one comfort food. She says, “I watched my mom have a cup with breakfast, with lunch, with dinner, and before bed! It was the aroma of my childhood. It meant warmth and that mom was home.” (No wonder Judith has such a hard time when she tries to give up coffee!)

In 1978, Judith and her husband opened the first non-Asian tofu shop in the U.S., and tofu sandwiches have always been one of her family’s traditional foods of contentment. She says, “We fry or bake the tofu with nutritional yeast, garlic powder and soy sauce or salt. Anything can go on the sandwich; it’s usually on nice toasted whole grain bread.”

As a life and health coach, my daughter Lily K. Morris has looked into the ways that she’s used food for comfort over her lifetime. She jokes, with some seriousness, “I have a graduate degree in comfort food.” She says, “Part of my healing adventure has been about food and exploring the why of what I do related to food – why I want peanut butter at a particular time, or why oatmeal; why I want to eat at night if I’ve already had a good dinner.” She reminded me it was like a tradition when she was growing up to have a bowl of cereal or piece of toast before bed. (My husband still goes through phases of eating granola before bed, and lists it as his number one comfort food.) Lily connects that bedtime urge to the way it can feel lonely when you’re a kid and it’s time to go off to your bed. A yummy food and a full stomach goes a long way toward filling that hole created by separation. 

Lily used to eat Baby Muesli (a ground up version of regular Familia, which is an oat flake, dried fruit, and nut cereal usually soaked in milk) all the way until she was a teenager. She’d grind up regular Familia if we didn’t have the baby version, and eat it with a baby spoon. Lily says her comfort foods now are peanut butter, baked things like scones, muffins, and banana bread, ice cream, puddings (which are definitely a kind of baby food), miso soup, toast with honey or jam, and tomato pie. 

Tomato pie is a summer family tradition that we look forward to and make at least once a season, and all eat together. It has a biscuit crust, tomatoes with basil and onion that cooks up nicely, and a topping of mayonnaise mixed with cheddar cheese. It covers all the best comfort categories: high calorie, high carb, salty, sweet, and fatty, and eaten with people you’re close to. Another longtime favorite is toast with broccoli, cheese, and gravy. On a winter evening, it’s easy to make and fills your belly. When our kids were growing up, we also had a summer tradition of going to town once a week or so for an ice cream cone after dinner, often with friends. Eating something sweet and creamy with someone you love is an unbeatably nurturing combination – maybe reminiscent of mother’s milk! 

Oak Bluffs storyteller and narrative consultant Susan Klein bemoans the loss of comfort foods in her life — due to a limited food regime. What deprivation! The first (and now, former) comfort food that comes to Susan’s mind, when I ask, is cake with coffee. She says, “It makes me feel happy. It doesn’t have to be frosted — and can’t have too much frosting either.” She associates it with her mother’s mandatory 4 pm coffee klatch. Susan says, “Often it was pound cake dusted with powdered sugar. It got you through to the evening,” and it was a special time to be with her busy mother.

When Susan was a young woman and went to Germany to visit her mother’s family, she got to see the importance of the 4 pm repast (and the prevalence of comfort food in that country). She says, “In Germany, it was a religion. There was fresh coffee and fresh cake. Everyone made their own, some plain, some quite intricate.” The big meal was at midday. Early breakfast and late supper offered similar fare — essentially, a large piece sliced off a great, round bread with sausage or cheese, perhaps a fried egg, and always sweet butter and homemade jelly in the morning. The cake filled in the afternoon hole and provided a bit of companionship and comfort as the day wound down. 

One of Susan’s favorite comforting foods is her mother’s goulash, for when she’s in “serious distress” – only she can’t have it anymore because of the meat. Her mother was a professional cook and Susan says, “I find eating to be tremendously pleasant. I love taste. I love texture.” She adds, “There’s a lot of emotional recall with food — trying to get back to the place where we feel safe and secure and loved.”

High on my comfort food list is toast with honey and cinnamon, especially with a cup of milky black tea. That’s what my mother would make for me when I was a kid and I wasn’t feeling well. When I eat it now, I feel warm inside with the sense of being taken care of. 

The trouble with comfort foods, as we all know, is that they’re not usually all that healthful. Eating them may be fine when we’re young, but as we get older, foods that used to go unnoticed by the digestive system start to get challenged. Like more and more people, I don’t eat gluten bread anymore (or black tea or milk), and believe me, it’s hard to get the same comforting feeling from gluten-free toast. But a pan of hot cornbread , biscuits or muffins (made with gluten-free flour), a baked white potato or sweet potato with butter (or fake butter, if necessary), and even a bowl of steaming hot brown rice with tamari can go a long way toward providing comfort these days. 

Margaret Knight writes frequently for Edible Vineyard, MV Arts & Ideas, and the MV Times. She lives on Chappaquiddick.