By GLYNIS VALENTI
Times Leader Staff Writer
It isn't possible to know exactly when sustenance became a substitute. Cavemen most likely ate to survive and hunt another day. Were gorging Romans trying to assuage guilt about throwing people to the lions, or were they alleviating worry about the fall of the empire? By that point food was considered pleasurable and was far more complicated than nuts, berries and wild boar, but a source of comfort? No one can say.
T-L Photo/GLYNIS VALENTI
Research says that women are more likely to reach for a bowl of ice cream than a bowl of beef stew when it comes to comfort food. On average, men go for heartier dishes while more women find comfort in snack food.
By end of the 1970s, however, comfort food was a genre listed in Webster's Dictionary and recognized by anyone holding eating utensils.
People used food to feel better. There is a physiological reason for the body to seek food for comfort that in fact dates back to the cavemen: stress. When a person is threatened, be it a saber-toothed tiger or job loss, the brain tells the body to produce cortisol, which signals systems throughout the body to gear up for life-saving (increase the heart rate, become alert, send blood to muscles for quick action.)
In the short-term, once the danger has passed, the body will shut the responses down. For chronic or long-term stress, cortisol production is prolonged, and the body's internal response is to keep energy reserves (fat, particularly in the abdomen) on hand to maintain a higher level of internal activity.
This means a natural craving for high fat, high sugar foods easily stored for energy. Once fat is stored, the body finally begins to shut the responses down, letting the brain know that there is a reserve of energy available.
The psychological and emotional connections to comfort food are a bit more complex and individual, but generally go back to the body's hormone production.
One university study had students categorize foods into nostalgic, physical, indulgence and convenience comfort foods, in effect showing that people make conscious choices about what foods make them feel better and why. When the body takes in sugar and starch, it produces a neurotransmitter called serotonin. The brain translates this chemical into "contentment, well-being." Oxytocin is produced when the body eats salty food. This chemical is a warm and fuzzy "love hormone" related to trust, bonding and human sexual responses.
Foods themselves can determine the resulting chemical and, to a certain extent, emotional reaction.
Sight, sound, touch and smell link memories with responses as well. The scent of a perfume, good or bad, can take one back to a fourth grade teacher or great aunt. So it is with food. In an informal survey for this article, a group from various backgrounds in the east, Midwest and west coast were asked about their comfort foods. In answers to "what makes this a comfort food for you," 50 percent of the respondents specifically mentioned associating the dish with their mothers or grandparents. Another 22 percent noted childhood memories (without mention of mothers or grandparents.) The difference may seem subtle, but the "moms" group associates the food with a person, love and connection to that person in general over time. The "childhood memories" group and, in fact, the remaining 28 percent seem to identify with the dish itself and its association with a time of illness, a reward or past good times.
Comfort food is also not an American phenomenon. Cultures on every continent have dishes that incorporate the same characteristics and are eaten for the same reasons as classic American versions. Most are served warm, though some of the sweeter foods are not (candy, ice cream;) most are soft (noodles, melted cheese, meatballs;) many are starchy (potatoes, homemade bread.) One person's eggnog is another's pad thai.
In the above-mentioned survey one Ohio Valley chef (port braised lamb shanks with creamy polenta and arugula) and one owner of a computer service company in New York (beef stew) both cited the change of season for their comfort food choices. The chef associated his dish with the change in menu and good times with his restaurant crew. The man with the computer company noted the fall colors of his dish and mentioned the first snow of the season.
Lists for the top named (American) comfort foods include what one might expect: macaroni and cheese, chicken soup, pot roast, beef stew, chocolate, apple and pumpkin pies, spaghetti, meatloaf, mashed potatoes. Aside from a couple of the favorites, though, the survey really showed the diversity of population while still staying true to comfort food characteristics: mashed potatoes with noodles in the center; peanut butter; ginger ale; eggnog; French fries with gravy; creamed peas and bacon made by mom. One woman describes her favorite: "Whole grain bread, toasted, with huge amounts of melted cheese on top. Tastes good while being not especially good for me, a prerequisite of comfort food. It probably reminds me of childhood when the cheese would have been generic Velveeta. Now the cheese is actually real cheese."
She does bring up a point about comfort food: it isn't healthy for everyday fare. This is also part of today's stress issues relating to the upswing in obesity. As previously mentioned, stress increases serotonin in the body, therefore increasing cravings for easily converted energy foods. High carb/low protein foods keep the production of serotonin going, also stimulating insulin production, which over the long-term can result in obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Cookbooks and websites are full of updated recipes to make comfort-style foods healthier, but part of the idea is the indulgence. If, however, macaroni and cheese is a family favorite, the four-star rated recipe below from Ellie Krieger at www.foodnetwork.com will take away some of the fat, calories and guilt of this heavy dish.
Though each has different experiences and preferences, humans are all designed the same, and using food to feel better is universal. The word "comfort" is derived from the Latin "confortare," to strengthen. Chances are just reading this article has triggered some favorite food memory.
In the words of renowned food writer and author M.F.K. Fisher, "It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it ... and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied ... and it is all one."
Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Macaroni with Four Cheeses
Ingredients: Cooking spray
1 pound elbow macaroni
2 (10-ounce) packages frozen pureed winter squash
2 cups 1 percent low fat milk
4 ounces extra-sharp Cheddar, grated (about 1 1/3 cups)
2 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated (about 2/3 cup)
cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons unseasoned bread crumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil
Directions: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add macaroni; cook until tender but firm, about 5 to 8 minutes. Drain, transfer to a large bowl.
Meanwhile, place the frozen squash and milk into a large saucepan; cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up the squash with a spoon until defrosted. Turn heat up to medium and cook until mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally. Remove pan from heat and stir in the Cheddar, Jack cheese, ricotta cheese, salt, mustard and cayenne pepper. Pour cheese mixture over macaroni; stir to combine. Transfer the macaroni and cheese to the baking dish.
Combine bread crumbs, Parmesan and oil in small bowl. Sprinkle over top of macaroni and cheese. Bake for 20 minutes; then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned. Makes eight servings.