Seemingly dangerous meals like Fugu fish stew and frogs in boiling pepper oil have graced my plate and palate, but a good old American-style breakfast nearly killed me. It was at Grandma’s Kitchen, a diner in Beijing that serves typical American “comfort food” — meat and potatoes, hamburgers, cream pies, and so forth — to Western expats longing for flavors of home (and to wealthier Chinese families curious to try “real” American food). After five months of getting by on bland Chinese breakfasts, I enjoyed every bite of my egg, sausage, potato, and green pepper skillet. Sitting in a vinyl booth, listening to the theme from The Wonder Years, I was content. But as I lazed out of the restaurant into the bleary late morning haze, my chest tightened. These were not pangs of homesickness for America. The sudden, massive influx of meat, carbs, and dairy forced me to sit down on the sidewalk, clutch my chest, and ponder the distance to the nearest hospital.
As the pain receded and I gingerly stood up and ambled on, I thought about the discrepancy between what I wanted to get out of the meal and what my body had allowed. The actual, physical product of comfort food is meant to evoke feelings of familiarity, home, and nostalgia. Ideally one can eat these feelings into existence while also having a cozy, homey experience. The breakfast food at Grandma’s Kitchen was comforting, but the overall experience left me rattled. Does a meal have to deliver on both of these fronts to truly deserve the title of “comfort food”?
When I asked friends for their most comforting meals, the individual responses were personal and subjective, yet they coalesced into a collective answer that reflected a neat microcosm of some key American experiences and values. For instance, cultural hybridity: my Indian-Dominican friend adds basmati rice to her mom’s Dominican chicken soup, which itself modifies the standard combo of chicken, carrots, and celery by adding plantains, yucca, and avocado. Or America’s diversity of religion, and religion’s rules for daily life: in moments of weak physical fortitude my Jewish grandmother is rejuvenated by chicken broth, while her gentile friends always have beef broth. America’s global presence is implied when a friend teaching abroad in Honduras buys Washington-grown apples to be reminded of home. Cultural imperialism comes to mind when sampling the local adaptations to the McDonald’s menu, which is a favorite practice for a second-generation Vietnamese friend who’s lived in South Africa, China, and Hawaii.
Despite all this, the American approach to recipes for comfort food is surprisingly unimaginative. Whether you want your comfort food vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, or diabetic-friendly, cookbooks specializing in the cuisine all dutifully deliver recipes for mac ‘n cheese, biscuits and gravy, and some kind of baked casserole. Some restaurants, chefs and food lobbies dress up the old favorites with classy ingredients and experimental preparations, but they still tend to promote a uniform vision of the American comfort food canon. There’s nothing wrong with adding flair to traditional dishes, but fancy and diet-conscious comfort foods remind us that there are only so many combinations of flavors and ingredients before we come circling back to the same old tropes. Studies attempting to parse the population’s taste for comfort foods just end up looking like lists of “stuff people really like to eat”. By labeling so many kinds of dishes “comfort food,” we tend to dilute the term’s meaning and privilege ingredients over experience.
Even inmates on death row turn to comfort food for their last meals. Because of the grim fate of the diner, this clearly a case where comfort is conveyed more by the food than by the experience. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how far you believe the serving of justice should intrude upon prisoners’ lives), last meals are sometimes constrained by state laws, chefs’ skills, and availability of ingredients. Or, in the frank words of a character in Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask:
Some guy is a few hours away from the Reaper’s speedball and he chows down on a slab of imitation crabmeat in a hot dog bun… These poor slobs could order anything they want, you think, but they are just low-rent and don’t know any better. Because that’s the story they’ve told us… [actually,] they have no choice. Prisoners are allowed to order their last meal only from restaurants within a three-mile radius of the prison. What kinds of joints do you think surround death houses?… No Michelin stars in those counties.
In a literature review of sorts on last meals, we are led to ponder the other factors that influence an inmate when choosing his or her final meal; perhaps the inmate’s native culture and the region of the prison also play a part in guiding how the inmate decides. Yet most items on this list of famous last meals hew close to the meat-fat-sugar trifecta present in many discussions of comfort food. Even celebrity chefs have weighed in on their perfect last meals. These imagined meals are more refined than real inmates’ meals, yet several of them share the quality of “comforting” the eater by giving him massive quantities of rich food.
Compare this with David Lebovitz’s appreciation of Moorish noodle pudding. The recipe comes from a cookbook by Moro, a London restaurant which used to source much of its food from “their ‘allotment’; a place on the outskirts of London where 81 people tended their own gardens and foraged for foods.” Unfortunately, the site has been destroyed, “the bulldozers [having]plowed the century-old gardens under to make way for the upcoming Olympics, in order to create a pathway between two stadiums.” Leibovitz had eaten the dish for only the first time, and yet:
The meal had “a certain allure that was hard to put my finger on. For lack of a better term, perhaps it’s because this dessert is ‘comfort food’, even though it’s from an unfamiliar place. Maybe it was the page facing this recipe, showing someone pouring two cups of steaming Turkish coffee on a ruddy kitchen counter. I ate my pudding on the rooftop, over looking the city of Paris — which I sometimes like to think of as my little allotment, which I hope doesn’t get bulldozed any time in the near future”
Here, nostalgia for a bygone, unknown place was all that was needed to transform the dessert into comfort food. Leibovitz was connected by neither time, nor place, nor ethnicity, nor familiarity with the original dish, and yet its connotations resonated quite deeply within him.
Years after the scare at Grandma’s Kitchen, I am in Phoenix on a business trip. When not on the road I work from home, so I normally prepare all three meals a day; now I must dine out alone for two straight weeks. For the first few meals, things seem all right — I enjoy a lunch of goat curry at an Indian restaurant, and for dinner I find a cheap vegetarian platter at a Middle Eastern restaurant and importer. The fact that I gravitate towards these types of food in an alien environment says something about my personal taste for foods I find comforting. But I know that I will only experience true culinary comfort in preparing a meal for myself.
My hotel room doesn’t have a kitchen or a refrigerator. Even the coffee maker is automated — no hot plate or coffee pot in which to humbly heat a can of soup. A friend with business travel experience tells me how to make an improvised refrigerator for leftovers: hotel rooms should always come with two clean trash bags, so take one of the bags, put your leftovers inside, tie the bag tight, and keep it overnight in the bathroom sink (filled with ice from the machine down the hall). Just don’t forget to brush your teeth first. I get as far as the toothbrushing and sink-filling before realizing that my room comes equipped with only one trash bag, which I have already filled with a day’s debris. I hate wasting food, so I force down the rest of the leftover hummus and tabouleh, re-brush my teeth, and go to bed uncomfortably full.
On the second day, I go to the nearest Safeway and stock up on bread, peanut butter, jelly, and dried fruits and nuts. Nourishing enough, but only good for lunches on-the-go, and without any of the joy, complexity, or time on task of actually cooking. By the third day I return to the hotel to find I can now rent a small refrigerator, so my options expand. I go back to the Middle Eastern importer, and with dinner, I order extra olives, pita, and hummus to save overnight; back in the hotel room I contentedly assemble the ingredients over a styrofoam tray.
On the fourth day, I find my gastronomic oasis. Rising out of the tan homogeneity of a Phoenix shopping center I see Chinese and English characters: 利利超级市场 LEE LEE ORIENTAL SUPERMARKET beckons me in, and inside I search for ingredients I can use to build a meal within the limited means of my hotel room. I settle on making bánh mì — Vietnamese sandwiches typically filled with pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, jalapenos, mayonnaise, pâté, and meat or tofu, all served on a French baguette.
Since heating food is not an option (I briefly consider buying a $17.99 portable gas cooker, then envision burning down the hotel and decide I’d rather keep my job), I go with tofu. I pick up some ingredients for a marinade: rice vinegar, thai chiles, ginger, and sesame seeds. I find a pre-pickled daikon and carrot mix, jalapenos, cilantro, and baguettes next to other Asian ingredients, so I figure I’m set! In the produce section I stock up on extra plastic bags. Then I spend 30 extra minutes wandering the aisles, happily looking at ingredients I know I will not buy.
Back in the hotel, I use my Leatherman tool to cut the tofu, which I plop into the marinade that’s been prepared over the bathroom sink. In lieu of tupperware, I triple-bag the ingredients, store them in the fridge for the next night, and contentedly crack open the styrofoam for the last of the Middle Eastern food.
After a summer day’s work under the blazing Phoenix sun, a cold sandwich is about the only thing I can look forward to eating. Back in my hotel bathroom, I hunch over the sink, chopping jalapenos, plucking cilantro leaves off stems, and draining vinegar from the daikon-carrot mixture. The pickled scent of the vegetables and the smell of the tofu marinade suddenly fill the room. For a moment I forget where I am, lost in the simple alchemy of sandwich making. Once the ingredients are assembled inside the bread, I sit at the desk and take my first bite.
The sandwich is awful. The marinade for the tofu is tinny and insipid; it tastes like it’s been soaked overnight in Mountain Dew. Too many seeds have been removed from the jalapenos, so there is not enough spice to draw my interest. Worst of all is the bread. It is soft and tacky, providing none of the resistant crackle that a decent baguette should have. The inner parts of the bread get mushy from being in contact with the daikon and carrots. As I finish off the sandwich in several more bland, matted mouthfuls, I think about going back to the Middle Eastern place.
To my surprise, over the next few days I make and eat the sandwich again and again. Even though I practically choke it down, even though added experimental ingredients (avocado, nori) can’t rescue it, I continue to suffer through until the package of six baguettes is finished. I just can’t pass up the chance to “cook,” even if the results are disappointing. The food itself might not be good, but every time I hunker over the fluorescent-lit bathroom counter, I am comforted, because I am making something, I am focused, and I forget I am alone.