For a while there, it looked like we might be out of the woods. The rate of coronavirus infections had begun to fall as the vaccination rate was on the rise. The CDC said it was okay for us to go out again, hit the Farmers Market and maybe even take in a movie. But then came the Delta variant. Now we’re all headed back to the bunker again. And what do we crave? Comfort food!
What is Comfort Food?
I define comfort food as that special meal you turn to when you need emotional support as well as physical sustenance. Maybe it’s chicken soup, when you have a head cold, or ramen noodles when you’ve just been dumped by the love of your life. It’s the Chinese food you must eat while you study for your finals, or the midnight waffles you and the rest of the cast opt for when the performance is over.
Sometimes there’s a ritual element to it. As a kid, if I got a sore throat, I wanted ice cream. But not just any ice cream. For a sore throat I needed vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup, served in a coffee mug. I’d smush the ice cream up with the syrup until it was like a thick milk shake, then eat it with saltine crackers. Nothing beats it for childhood strep. It’s classic comfort food.
More adult-oriented comfort food often includes stuff that’s super simple to prepare after a stress-filled work week: eggs and bacon for supper, or a grilled cheese sandwich with hamburger dills on the side. Leftovers make excellent comfort food, particularly when you’re only cooking for one. Ham and beans that can feed you for a week? The endless possibilities of Sunday pot roast come Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday? There’s comfort in every bite you don’t have to cook.
The Twenty-Four Hour Breakfast
Eggs, bacon, biscuits, gravy, cinnamon toast, and waffles are staples of the comfort food menu. There’s a reason round-the-clock truck stops and 24-hour diners make bank on this stuff. People who stumble in, weary from the road, don’t need to deal with exotic food. They need basic carbs and protein that their stomachs will recognize and accept without controversy. It’s the International House of Pancakes for a reason, right?
Warren and I even had a song about late night comfort food. The Texas-based fast food chain Whataburger is always open. There was an outlet conveniently positioned between our home in Parker County and the Fort Worth concert venue where we got to see Guy Clark, Joe Ely, and numerous other Americana greats. Once, as the clock neared midnight, we hijacked the tune of the old Doc Watson song, Crawdad Hole, and came up with this ode to comfort food:
Carbohydrates, grease and salt, honey, honey Carbohydrates, grease and salt, babe. Carbohydrates, grease and salt: Top ‘em off with a rich, thick malt! Honey, oh baby mine!
Comfort food is different for every soul who needs comforting. Your choice will depend on your age, your culture, and what your mama fed you when her sweet baby didn’t feel good. Whether you turn to tea and a danish when you need a spiritual boost, or head straight for a quart of Ben and Jerry’s, there are rules we should all observe about comfort food:
- You don’t get to make fun of anybody else’s comfort food. Elvis liked peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches. Some people toast their grilled cheese with mayonnaise instead of butter. A fried bologna sandwich on white bread can be your best friend in a crisis. It takes all kinds. Let people find comfort where they can.
- Don’t go all gourmand about it. Macaroni and cheese with spinach penne, a dollop of truffle oil, and four kinds of cheese that aren’t Velveeta may be delicious. But a moment of crisis is no time to insist you must make your pasta by hand using that massive stand mixer with the extrusion attachment.
- Don’t try to make it healthy. Comfort food is loaded with fat and salt. That’s what makes it comforting. If, in your hour of need, you crave tuna casserole the way Mom used to make it, beware. Making it with egg white noodles, low sodium mushroom soup and 2% milk will only plunge you back into despair.
- There is no substitute for bacon. You know I’m right.
Mac and Cheese for the Win!
When it comes to comfort food, we each have our favorite. But, after a completely unscientific survey of the friends who still take my weird questions, it has become clear to me that one comfort food rules them all: Macaroni and Cheese.
Different generations approach this classic in different ways. When Jan and I were young, our mother made macaroni and cheese from scratch using whole milk, medium pasta shells, and—yeah, gotta fess up here—Velveeta pasteurized, prepared cheese product. Jan was a bigger fan than I was, but she loved it, hot out of the oven with burned cheese on top, or cold the next day in her lunchbox. We made a pact about it. I would get all the tuna casserole leftovers if she could have all the mac and cheese.
By the time Jan and I hit college, Kraft had cornered the market on comfort food mac and cheese with convenient boxed mixes that were supposed to feed the whole family. But c’mon! That little box was single-serving size for famished youngsters for at least the next two generations. Jan’s two children learned to cook it for themselves at a rather tender age, and still reach for it when emotional times are tough.
These days, macaroni and cheese comes ready-made in custom-sized servings from individual microwavable cups for your lunch box all the way up to genuinely family-sized casseroles tucked in next to the frozen lasagna at the supermarket.
Grandmothers, hard working parents, busy young singles—they all name macaroni and cheese as one of their top five comfort foods. I even know a four-year-old diva—who should not yet know the need for comfort food—who names it as her #1 go to.
Serve it as a meal. Serve it as a side dish. Dump a whole bunch of it into your favorite bowl and eat it on your couch in your pajamas. However you like it, macaroni and cheese will not let you down. Unlike that user/loser ex-boyfriend of yours who . . . Well, never mind. Take comfort in the fact that macaroni and cheese is a universally understood food-based hug.
What are your go-to comfort foods? Leave a comment below to let us know. We promise not to laugh.
The “Crowded Texas Venues” montage from our prematurely-hopeful “What’s it Gonna Take?” post in May brought together six photos from pre-COVID times. Many thanks to The Dallas Morning News, for both the photo of the Dallas Cowboys game from 2019, by photographer Tom Fox, and the Shed at the Dallas Farmers Market, by photographer Ron Baselice. We thank Second Baptist Church’s Facebook Page and Wide Open Country for the photo of people at a service. Our gratitude goes to Texas Hill Country for the photo of rides at a county fair after dark, and Travel Texas for the undated photo of the unidentified barrel racer. Thanks also to The Dallas Observer and photographer Brian Maschino for the photo from the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
All Those Comfort Food Photos (and a couple of others)
We deeply appreciate The Dallas Grilled Cheese Company (check them out, when you’re in Dallas!) and G. S. Norwood herself for the Comfort Combo montage featuring grilled cheese with tomato soup and ham and beans, respectively. G. also included the “cat cuddle” pic at the end. We also want to thank Whataburger on Twitter for the picnic pic, Margaret Norwood Donnelly for the Family Archive photo of G. on the lap harp and Warren on ukulele, and City of Aiken, SC Tourism for the photo of menu items from the International House of Pancakes.
Many thanks for the “Da Rules” cartoon image, courtesy of Formula Student Austria. The photo of colorful scoops of ice cream came from The Mom Collective’s Kansas City Ice Cream Guide. Those nachos came from “Picuki’s” Instagram gallery. And the cookies are Peanut Butter Kisses from Scrapality’s “Christmas Cookies Galore!” article. Our gratitude to all!
Far from least, we marvel at the mac-and-cheese munificence from Dinner at the Zoo (bacon mac & cheese) and Benjamin McCormick on Medium (square white dish). We’re particularly grateful for double yumminess from Spend with Pennies (the round white bowl, and the cheddar topping), and Dallas Grilled Cheese Company (again), with the two grilled mac-and-cheese sandwiches. We’re not worthy, but we’re definitely hungry. Many thanks to each of you!