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The other day I was at the office of a well known shipping company furious at their failure to locate my package. Finally my patience had reached its end and I stormed out empty handed. Angry and hungry, I made my way to a nearby all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet where I proceeded to eat them out of house and home. Remember all those people starving in China that your mother reminded you about when you wouldn’t finish your dinner? Well don’t worry. I ate enough for everyone in Shanghai to loosen their belt. Midway through my gluttonous escapade I realized that my agitation had faded. I had stumbled upon the essence of “comfort food.”
I suspect the average person doesn’t think of Asian fare when they ponder the concept of comfort food. But as my indulgent example demonstrates, any food can be a comfort depending on the individual’s personal taste. Thus, comfort food is food that makes you feel good, right? Hmmmmm. Well that depends on your definition of “feel good.” If you have a boneless, skinless, (and probably tasteless), chicken breast with a salad for dinner, and you feel good because you haven’t added to your waistline, that is NOT comfort food. Your comfort is not coming from the food you ate. It’s coming from the food you didn’t eat. If you’re a dieter, comfort food is the kind of food you’re endeavoring to avoid.
Classic comfort food is hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, fat-laden, grub that fills your soul as much as your belly. With the exception of some sweets, it is almost always hot and usually moist. It is NEVER lo-cal, lo-carb, “lite,” or anything that would show up on a Weight Watchers’ menu. Comfort food often means meat. Good ole fashioned red meat: roasts, steaks, ribs, meatloaf, burgers, stews and braised dishes. There’s usually a sauce, or better yet, a gravy and white bread or biscuits for dipping. If there are vegetables they are never green. Mashed or fried potatoes, corn on the cob with ample butter, pork and beans, or roasted root vegetables. Creamed soups, macaroni & cheese, hot apple pie, chili, French toast, pizza, pasta, (with a meat or cream based sauce), and of course ice cream, are classic comfort foods.
Comfort food knows no bounds. They can be for breakfast: pancakes with a side of bacon or sausage, lunch: hot open roast beef sandwich with lots of gravy and potatoes, and most certainly dinner: braised lamb shanks with root vegetables and a crusty bread.
Every culture has their own version of comfort food. The French have cassoulet, a hearty stew of beans and various meats. Braised brisket, matzo ball soup and latke, (potato pancakes), are Jewish favorites. New Orleans has their jambalaya and gumbo. There’s Italian osso buco, Irish lamb stew, and English Yorkshire pudding, (which isn’t a pudding but a popover made from the drippings of a beef roast). The other day I was in a little hole-in-the-wall Cuban restaurant and had a wonderful comfort food lunch: braised and shredded flank steak with black bean soup and a hefty side of yellow rice. And while many of these dishes seem more apropos for the colder months, the summer’s no stranger to comfort food: grilled steaks, barbequed ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, potato salad, bean dishes, and of course, ice cream.
Lately there has been a renewed interest in comfort foods. A number of comfort food cookbooks have arisen in recent years. Maybe it’s a backlash to the interminable fat-phobia that has plagued this nation to epidemic proportions. Like many forms of fanaticism, there’s a kernel of truth shrouded by layers of misinformation and disproportional fear. But even more disconcerting is the self-righteousness of the anti-fat crusade in particular, and the pro-health movement in general. There’s a blatant sentiment that because something is bad for your health, that it is morally bad. If I hear one more TV chef apologize for adding butter or cream to a dish, I’m gonna gorge myself on lard until I induce a massive coronary. I’ll die a martyr and become the patron saint of comfort food.
Healthy eating is not the road to virtuousness or perdition. The whole issue boils down to quality vs. quantity of life and there is no right or wrong answer because it is a matter of personal choice. First of all, none of us know whether avoiding fat and worshiping the treadmill will buy us more time. Any of us could get hit by that proverbial bus or perish from a non-diet related disease. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume a restrictive diet will stall your fatal heart attack for a number of years. People still have a right to choose whether it’s worth the cost. Moreover, there’s no eternal yardstick for measuring that. The “right” choice is the one consonant with your beliefs and values. Each of us has to decide how much comfort we are willing to sacrifice for our waistline and our arteries.
I assume most of us reconcile the quandary with moderation; that elusive balance whereby we endeavor to serve two masters. So get your butt to the gym and make a hearty beef stew for dinner.