I’m not sure where I’m going with this post. I just know I’ve eaten stew twice this week (mmmm), and it’s got me thinking about the phrase “comfort food.”
Merriam-Webster online defines comfort food as “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” Sounds pretty good, huh? But I have all these associations with “comfort food” that aren’t so positive. To the point where eating stew — i.e., meat and veggies — feels like nearly as bold a transgression of “healthy eating” dictates as, oh, I don’t know… what would be a clever example of unhealthy eating in the traditional manner of the fat person? Hmmmm… Oh, right! STUFFING MY FACE WITH DONUTS.
(I think we might need to make that the phrase of the week. Fillyjonk and Sweet Machine, I demand that every post made here between now and next Friday include a reference to stuffing the face with donuts.)
Off the top of my head, here are some of the associations I have with “comfort food” (which I should probably note I always think of in terms of savory food, not desserts):
- bland, or at least not exotically spiced
- “emotional eating” — heaven forfend!
- “peasant food” — how my mother tended to refer to anything stewlike
- not suitable for company
- not visually appealing (usually brown or whitish)
- a “guilty pleasure.”
Sounds kind of nasty when you put it like that, doesn’t it? And I have all that shit going through my head every time I eat something I categorize as comfort food — guilt, snobbery, repulsion, questions about my real psychological motivation for eating it.
Which kind of takes the fun out of the fact that it fucking tastes good and, in the case of soups and stews, is usually pretty nutritionally complete. Not to mention simple to prepare and inexpensive. And… comforting — insofar as anything tasty and filling is comforting because, you know, I’m human. I’m designed to like tasty and filling food.
The problem, of course, is that the tasty and filling element of most comfort foods — at least in the American tradition — is fat. Butter and milk make mashed potatoes taste good (sour cream helps, too). Cream makes veggie soup taste good. Fatty cuts of meat make stew taste good. Cheese makes mac taste good. Sausage makes sausage taste good.
These things taste good, fill you up, don’t cost a lot of money, and release natural opioids in your brain. What’s not to love?
Oh, right. Fat. Never mind whether you serve them alongside vegetables (or — gasp! — put fat directly ON the vegetables). Fat is the enemy. Fat will kill you. Fat cancels out the nutritional value of anything served in conjunction with it. Or even, one suspects, in the same room with it. Thus, “comfort foods” are to be eaten only rarely, and only with a side of guilt and embarrassment.
Lately, I’ve been going through one of my semi-annual phases where I obsessively read food blogs and recipes, but never actually make any of the things I bookmark. And inevitably, if a recipe for something high in fat is reader-submitted, or on a blog, it contains some sort of apology/warning: I don’t usually eat like this. This is not an everyday thing. This will stop your heart, but it’s really good. Enjoy, but don’t overdo it.
Take this recipe from Blue Kitchen for “Dangerously Good Linguine Non Carbonara.” The blog entry about it includes this:
Yes, there are veggies aplenty in this carbonara. You know—vegetables, salutary, nutritious, radiating their sunny health benefits throughout your being. Well, don’t let the jolly presence of vegetables fool you. Any lurking health elements they may possess are eradicated by the lavish use of the bacon, and the sautéing, and then the great lashings of egg and cheese. All you have left is extreme deliciousness.
Actually, no, the health benefits of vegetables are not eradicated by the presence of fat. They are, in fact, complemented by the health benefits of eggs — an excellent source of protein (with all the essential amino acids your body needs), all the B vitamins, plus A, D, E, and numerous essential minerals — and the calcium in the cheese, and the heart-healthy fatty acids in olive oil. Even the bacon has niacin and selenium, along with more protein — which, granted, isn’t really lacking in a dish that already contains eggs and cheese. The pasta’s got your starch and fiber. And then there are the aforementioned loads of veggies.
But, oh, THE FAT!
Fat, it would seem, has a magical power to sap all those vitamins and minerals and other nutrients from the rest of your meal. Even though, you know, fat’s necessary to absorb a lot of vitamins and minerals. YOU JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THAT! FAT KILLS!
I mean, do you need eggs, bacon, and cheese on your pasta? Fuck no. Of course not. But it sure tastes good. And there sure are a lot of nutrients in that combo — especially when combined with veggies and pasta — that get overlooked when you’re hung up on fat.
And we are all so fucking hung up on fat. Which, I imagine, is how beef, potatoes, carrots, peas, and onions went from being “a square meal” to a “guilty pleasure.”
As for the inevitable caveats on fatty recipes, I have to ask: what is an “everyday” meal? The only person I know who ever actually ate the same thing every day is my dad, in the years between my mom’s death and his remarriage. Oatmeal for breakfast, sandwich and salad for lunch, frozen pasta with frozen veggies for dinner, every fucking day. Most of us, I think, could not keep that up the way he did. Most of us crave more variety — ’cause, you know, that’s how we get all the different nutrients our bodies need (including fatty acids), and our bodies are awfully smart that way. (You’ll note that dad was getting a balance of all the major food groups every day, which one assumes is why his body didn’t flip out and demand something else. But most of us also don’t have his unbelievable tolerance for boredom.)
I love this post at Pinch My Salt, which goes into great detail about how the author, Nicole, started fantasizing about broccoli while on the elliptical machine at the gym one day. (Her roasted broccoli recipe looks pretty awesome, too.)
I had been planning on using the broccoli for either a quiche or some soup but all of a sudden I couldn’t stop thinking about eating the broccoli by itself. I just wanted to go home, steam it, and eat it. All of it….
No, it’s not normal for me to daydream about vegetables at the gym. I think it might have something to do with the fact that I’ve been eating almost nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches for the last week or so. My body needed something green!
And that, my friends, is what happens when you trust your body instead of punishing yourself for eating “bad” foods and congratulating yourself for eating “good” ones. You eat grilled cheese (a celebrated comfort food, of course) for a week, and suddenly, you’re beset by inappropriate thoughts about the head of fresh broccoli in your fridge. (Likewise, if you eat steamed broccoli for a week, you’re going to be craving some protein and fat like whoa, which is one more problem with dieting.) That is what intuitive eating is all about. You don’t need to tell your body what it must and mustn’t eat — if you let it be, it will tell you.
So there’s really no need for those warnings on fatty recipes; no matter how good that Linguine Non Carbonara is, I’m not going to want bacon and cheese for dinner every night. (Okay, Al might, but that’s another story.) I’m going to crave Nicole’s roasted broccoli some nights, and her horseradish meatloaf other nights, and her veggie chili beans and brown rice other nights, and her biscuits and gravy other nights. (I’m really loving this blog, if you can’t tell, which I discovered via Lindsay’s rave review of the blue cheese burgers.) Not to mention the various cravings for green salad, spinach, red peppers, garlic, asparagus, and basil– which are all fairly common in my brain (even if I do, naturally, routinely ignore those cravings in favor of STUFFING MY FACE WITH DONUTS). If I listen to my body, I don’t need anyone to tell me not to “overdo it.” My body knows what it’s doing.
The demonization of certain foods can make us blind to the simple fact that cravings mean something, or we wouldn’t have them in the first place. The translation between what our bodies need and what we crave isn’t always perfect, of course. The first time my body said, “Hey, beef stew sounds really good” this week, I ended up immediately devouring all the carrots, then peeking under the beef and potatoes, which only vaguely interested me, to see if I’d missed any. Had my body issued me a handy printout that read, “Dear Kate, you could really use some beta-carotene,” I might have gone in a different direction. But it didn’t, so I didn’t. And I ate a ton of carrots anyway — alongside the fat needed to absorb said beta-carotene, and some protein and carbs to make it a complete meal — so as far as I’m concerned, my body told me everything I needed to know. Well done, body.
Similarly, if you find yourself dying for grilled cheese or mashed potatoes, you might need calcium; for meatloaf, iron; for eggs, B vitamins. Now, if this were a diet blog, my next move would be to tell you that by that logic, if you crave grilled cheese or mashed potatoes, you should try eating low-fat yogurt; if you crave meatloaf, you should try eating kidney beans or spinach; if you crave eggs, you should try eating some nutritional yeast.
Fortunately, this is not a diet blog. So all I’m gonna tell you is what I always tell you: eat what you crave. ‘Cause you also might be craving grilled cheese or mashed potatoes for the fiber, meatloaf or eggs for the protein. Or any of the above for some other nutrients you don’t even consciously associate with them and thus couldn’t replace with “healthier” choices if you tried. Your body might even — gasp! — be craving fat for a good reason, like to help you absorb certain vitamins or just, you know, keep your hair, skin and organs healthy.
Or, you might just crave comfort food because you want some goddamned comfort. Tell me again what’s wrong with that?