Finding the comfort in comfort food
On Saturday, I made a pumpkin pie, my first attempt at baking in more than a year. After my somewhat rocky year, the kitchen seemed like the natural place to be, and pie the natural food. Comfort food isn't even necessarily about eating. Yes, when returning to familiar dishes, we use the language of taste, but in some ways the act becomes more important than the flavor. Comfort food is in the ritual, the grease on the hands and the crunch. These days it doesn't even seem to have much to do with comfort.
I never exactly thought that cinnamon and clove could heal the world, but they used to make a more useful salve. Maybe it's the side effect of eating for a living. It's difficult to assign emotion to a stack of lasagna when you are surreptitiously taking notes about the quality of the béchamel. But I don't think so. Writing criticism has made how I regard food more granular, but it hasn't changed my fundamental belief that the eating should be an act of love.
But that's the rub. The concept of comfort food has ceased to be about one's private heritage. As it has become an industry, it has picked up the particular vulgarities of America. Of course families around the world seek solace in the rituals of the table, but we have made it performance. Mac and cheese gets crowned with spare ribs or stuffed in a calzone. We're not finished until we put an entire ecosystem in gumbo. And the Thanksgiving buffet, always laid out with the most comforting of comforts, has shifted from a meal celebrating rare bounty to a bacchanal. Turkey has given way to turducken.
I don't think anyone should be ashamed of indulgence, whether we can afford it or not, but we should not confuse it with excess. Indulgence doesn't produce Guy Fieri's petite mort rictus. It's quieter and more personal. A series of little sighs.
And true comfort, the kind that makes days a little better, is often about simplicity. Add a sprinkle of salt to a tomato. Drizzle bleu cheese with honey. Dip a perfect baguette in olive oil. These are foods that soothe the soul, not some over-the-top version of loco moco.
That was probably something I should have remembered before baking my pie, when I decided to follow Alton Brown instead of calling my mother. The resultant dessert was largely wasted, the store-bought crust was terrible, and the pie itself too dark from the use of coconut crystals instead of brown sugar. It was barely saved by a judicious glob of whipped cream. It seemed to me I should have skipped the baking entirely and just spooned the cream on fruit.
But realization is always cold comfort.