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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

comfort food

(1980’s | journalese (gastronomy) | “home cooking,” “favorite dish”)

You could construct a good personality test by asking subjects to define this expression and list examples. Food writers use it confidently, but it has a wide range of meaning, though the gradations can be pretty subtle. The bottom lines that seem to underlie every use of the phrase: it has to be something the diner is already familiar with, and likes. Beyond that, it can go in several directions with equal confidence. Obviously, there is some overlap among the categories below, but I find the taxonomy helpful:

-What you ate when you were a small child, therefore often mushy or liquid, that makes you feel like you’re in Mama’s arms again. In other words, comforting food. Things like macaroni and cheese or tomato soup.

-What lovely Liz from Queens calls “white food.” Also often mushy and associated with childhood, but the point is it’s uncomplicated — bland and starchy as well as pale in color. Mashed potatoes, bananas, vanilla ice cream.

-What people eat in the country. “Comfort food” is sometimes used as a synonym for down-home dishes, and it may have a strong regional tinge. Comfort foods in the South may differ from comfort foods in the Northwest, for example (Moon Pies are not big in Seattle). Burritos in the Southwest, lobster rolls in the Northeast.

-Anything plain and unsurprising. Sometimes “comfort food” refers to things that are simple to prepare as well as eat, perhaps with the implication that it’s for family consumption rather than guests. This covers the first two above and other areas as well. Oatmeal, spaghetti, scrambled eggs.

-Heavy or at least substantial preparations; usually meat, frying, or both are involved. Meat loaf, casseroles, pot roast, burger and fries. Don’t be alarmed if the word “rib-sticking” appears nearby.

-Whatever you happen to enjoy, whatever makes you feel better for having eaten it, or makes up for a bad day. This sense of the term really opens the floodgates; now fancy gourmet concoctions can sit right beside the humblest fare. Sushi or catfish, crème brulée or egg custard, sweetbreads or scrapple. Such broad usage may be an abuse of the term, but you hear it a fair amount.

Notable by its absence from the lists above is the noble vegetable. The more effort it requires to eat, and the less obviously sweet, salty, or fatty it is, the less likely it will qualify as comfort food (except under the last definition, where anything goes).

There are some obvious faults — in the geological sense — in the meaning of “comfort food” that help explain the multiplicity sketched above. The main one: both personal preference and social custom are part of the field covered by this expression, and neither can be disregarded. Each person has their own, to some degree, but there is usually a fairly strong consensus on what most people in the same culture would consider comfort food. If your version of it is a rice cake with a shmear of tofu, that’s your business, but don’t expect your peers to share your tastes. Another fault: Lovers of exotic cuisine may depict “comfort food” with a sneer as unworthy of an adventurous palate, but more often it operates with reverse snobbery, as the lower classes contrast their chow lovingly with the pretentious, fussy gourmet variety. I also note in passing that “comfort food” partakes of nostalgia, real or imagined, especially when it summons our childhood diet or rural eating habits. But once again, the nostalgia may be deeply personal (childhood) or sociocultural (down home). Another point of negative interest: the expression is rarely used metaphorically (e.g., calling a novel “literary comfort food” as a reviewer in the New York Times did in 1987). We have chicken soup for the soul, but comfort food fills only the belly. To round off this sequence of unrelated points, I will suggest that there is no direct connection between the rises of “comfort zone” and “comfort food,” but they occurred at the same time, and it’s quite possible the two expressions helped each other into everyday language.

My brilliant, beautiful girlfriend gave me this expression months ago, and I finally decided to take a bite out of it. Thanks, baby!

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