What Makes a Comfort Food Comforting?

You may have seen the image going around social media listing favorite Thanksgiving side dishes by state, which seems to have been compiled by Taste of Home. (You can also take a look at the image here if you haven’t seen it.)

The image caught my attention for two reasons. One, the vast majority of states favored comfort foods like mashed potatoes (10 states), mac and cheese (6 states), and rolls/biscuits (6 states). Two, for some reason, Maine is listed with a side salad!

Now, I like a side salad in general, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite Thanksgiving side dish, and I’m also not sure it qualifies as comfort food.

And I’m not alone in that. On the most recent episode of Chopped, which took place in Maine, the show started a five-part tournament for comfort food. In the episode, one contestant made a salad as an appetizer, and (spoiler alert), she was chopped after the first round.

As the judges pointed out, it didn’t meet the theme of comfort food.

That got me thinking, what makes a comfort food comforting? Are there commonalities that transcend culture and tradition? After looking at some articles about comfort food from around the world (from Insider.com, Tasty.co, and Buzzfeed), a few things stood out.

Easy to Eat

One commonality is that these favorite foods are all easy to eat. Not a single entry in any of the articles was for food that required lots of crunching.

A few had a crispy outside due to being fried, like fish & chips in England or the outer edge of sausage rolls in Australia, but they all had soft interiors.

And things like moussaka in Greece (a layered dish sort of like lasagna but with eggplant, potatoes, spices, and ground meat) and pagesh from Poland (dough stuffed with cheese and potatoes) don’t even have that minimal crunch.

Warm

I was a little surprised that ice cream didn’t make the cut, but perhaps that was too obvious. At any rate, all the comfort dishes were warm. Many of them were soups or stews, like Matzo ball soup, minestrone from Italy, and kare-kare from the Philippines.

And that makes sense to me. There’s something very comforting about holding a warm bowl of soup or inhaling the steam rising from something straight from the oven.



Cheesy

Not all of the items on the lists involved cheese, but a lot of them did. This included:

· Grilled cheese, a favorite in the United States (and often paired with tomato soup)

· French onion soup

· Poutine from Canada

· Spätzle from Germany

And even if the dishes didn’t have cheese as a main ingredient, they were often topped with cheese, such as moussaka from Greece and spaghetti alla carbonara from Italy.

What Else is Comforting?

I decided to take this one step further and think about how to apply these same things to other ways of comforting ourselves. Here are three ways to apply what’s comforting about food to other comfort choices.

1. Keep it simple: when you’re looking for comfort, you don’t want to work hard for it – find something that’s easy and simple for you to do

2. Go for warmth: physical warmth is nice for comfort (think hot showers or baths, and being wrapped in a blanket), but you can also go for the things that make you feel warm inside

3. Find something funny: not everyone finds cheesy humor funny, but some do – and whatever your sense of humor, things that make you laugh tend to be comforting

Finding Comfort in Food and Elsewhere

We’re going through a tough time, so it makes sense that we’d all be looking for ways of comforting ourselves. Food is one way to do that, but you can also think about what you find comforting about food and apply that to other things.

What’s something simple you can do that will make you feel warm and lift your spirits? Brainstorm some ideas, and when you need a pick-me-up, give those options a try. Let me know how it goes – I’d love to hear what brings some joy to your days!

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