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Defining "Comfort Food"

Help me define comfort food. I knwo what comforts me---pot roast, braised short ribs, good cheese. I know what comforts others---mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, etc. I think of casseroles as being comfort food.

Can you all help me with a decent definition. My husband is a scholar and linguistics is a hobby so he's just not buying my explanations.

Thanks for the help.

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  1. To me, comfort food is something that makes me smile when I eat it. I can close my eyes, and it conjures up wonderful memories. It makes me feel like a warm blanket is wrapped around me. A comfort food can relax me when I'm wound up, or make me feel better when I'm sad. It's something I can savor in smell, taste, texture. Most comfort foods stem from memories of eating them with my family. When I have a bowl of PA Dutch chicken pot pie, for instance, I think of my family, because the recipe has been passed down through the generations.
    It's not a very good definition, but I'm not sure you can define it. It's almost an intangible concept.

    1. Comfort food is food that makes you feel better, makes you feel warmer, happier and that things will be better soon. On a cold gray winter day (the entire month of February for example) a bowl of homemade chicken soup with dumplings is the best thing - just knowing that I've got it on the stove makes me feel better.
      Foods that make you smile when you see them, before you've even had your first bite, work too. Peanut butter cookies with the sugared fork marks, especially warm, works for me - thats the first type of cookie I ever made.
      Foods that someone you love used to make for you is a comfort. My husband's grandmother used to make a German Chocolate Cake for his birthday every year. She is gone but I have the recipe. When I make it, we smile and say "Just like Grandma's", and it almost is - it doesn't have quite as much love in it! We had dinner at a restaurant here in town recently and our entree was duck - now she never made duck for us but this dish tasted like someone had spent the day in the kitchen cooking it. It was fabulous and had a flavor-note that reminded us of Grandma. That was comforting.

      Thats what I'm thinking comfort food is - love on a plate.
      Hope that helps!

      2 Replies
      1. re: Cookiefiend

        I think that familiarity is cofort, so comfort foods are things that we are familiar with and have liked. Foods that connect to our positive thoughts and please our sences.

        Because we all have different things that we are familiar with and that we enjoy smelling and eating, the personal definition for what our comfort foods are change from person to person.

        I totally agree with cookiefriend in what he or she said.


        1. re: Cookiefiend

          Chicken and dumplings, German Chocolate cake for my birthday, Peanut butter cookies. OMG - I think we grew up in the same house!

        2. My idea of comfort food isn't one that evokes memories, but a very personal feeling of complete and utter happiness when I'm eating it. When I eat chicken fried steak with creamy mashed potaotes and creamy gravy, I'm not thinking of past memories.As a kid, I couldn' stand potatoes in any shape except fries, because I thought they were gritty. I certainly couldn't have any memory of egg drop soup another of my favorite comfort foods, I know for a fact that I ever ate very much ethnic cuisine unless at a restaurant, because my parents just cooked the usual fare. As a result of that I didn't begin to experience ethnic cuisines until I was in my 20s.

          So comfort food to me is a food that creates a heightend personal experience between ones body and all the senses and then their soul, like a healing.

          2 Replies
          1. re: chef chicklet

            My daughter (age 12) is also an "only fries" kid. I could never understand how she could possibly find anything objectionable about a bland food like potatoes, but perhaps it's the texture, not the taste. I had never thought of that, so thanks for your post! Here's hoping she'll get over it, as you clearly have. :-)

            1. re: bklynite

              I can still remember scraping mashed potatoes off my tongue and having a gritty feeling on my teeth. Expected to clean my plate I would make a bee-line to brush my teeth.

              Now, HA! I could live on them! More than likely she will learn to love them, I was exactly that same age when I considered them grody. There's hope!

          2. I'd love to add a piggyback question (if that's OK): What are some translations of the expression "comfort food" into other languages? I've noticed that this category seems to be almost exclusively anglophone. I'm currently living in France, and I have the hardest time explaining the magic of grilled cheese sandwiches, poutine, fluffer-nutter, and PB&J.

            6 Replies
            1. re: LMGM

              La Cuisine Grand-mere, or Cuisine Bourgeoise...in your case, just say Cuisine Bourgeoise Americaine! Of course, if your French friends aren't foodies at all they still might not catch on, but I have no experience of non-foodie French people, and for all I know they don't exist...

              Some of my favorite comfort foods are French, such as tripes Provençale, cassoulet, choucroute garni, tête de veau...if you can get it at a brasserie or bistro, I'd say it's eligible for the category.

              1. re: Will Owen

                My favorite comfort food of a French origin is tartiflette ... and I'm not even that big of a cheese fan, generally speaking.

                1. re: Will Owen

                  Thanks! Although I'm more likely to say Cuisine Bourgeoise Canadienne, if anything. Especially poutine, which is practically Québec's "national" dish. I've noticed that fries & gravy are rare in the states, outside of the New England-NYC-Philly corridor.

                  1. re: LMGM

                    Poutine is actually a fairly recent (certainly post Second World War, probably 1960s) development, and not in any way one of our "national dishes", which would be more things like tourtière or soupe aux pois.

                    Comfort food is one of those expressions, and concepts, that are actually hard to translate - I've seen "nourriture reconfortante" (very literal) and "aliments doudous" (which emphasizes the regression into childhood).

                    I don't think regression into childhood is looked upon so kindly in French-speaking countries. In France, one might eat childish things such as "petits suisses" (bland, rich pots of white cheese") or those milk-based desserts in plastic pots one finds in French supermarkets. Or perhaps a Proustian madeleine?

                    1. re: LMGM

                      "Wet fries" are pretty common sandwich-shop fare here in SoCal - there's a local chain called The Hat that has'em on the menu, and they're really popular, though I haven't tried them. I'm more of a mayonnaise guy myself ;-)

                      There's a Canadian place over in Monrovia that has poutine, too. LA County: the Land of All Foods!

                  2. re: LMGM

                    In Japanese, I'm not sure if there's a direct translation for "comfort food", but there's an expression "ofukuro no aji" which means "taste of your mom's cooking". The term refers to a nostalgic feeling over certain flavors.

                  3. I think it can be described as rustic, homestyle food.

                    1. Tough question! Especially since I'm sure the lover of linguistics isn't going to accept "food that is comforting" as a definition of comfort food. But really, how else DO you define it since comfort food is different for everyone??

                      It isn't just good food; I've had plenty of great food that I enjoyed eating, but just didn't qualify as "comfort food." And eating good food makes me happy, but even being happy eating isn't what makes for "comfort food."

                      As Chef Chicklet pointed out, it isn't always foods you ate as a child that make you think of comfort food. One of my comfort "foods" is bourbon... and I'm relatively certain that I wasn't served this as a child!

                      I like Queen B's analogy of the blanket being wrapped around you. Comfort food is something that I can settle into enjoying, and almost feel my blood pressure going down.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Foodie in Friedberg

                        ahhh .... bourbon.

                        Certainly wasn't served that as a child but oh my goodness, I do consider that a comfort as an adult.

                        1. re: Cookiefiend

                          And the comforting of bourbon begins with the smell... I can just smell it and feel better!

                      2. Comfort food, aside from associating it with childhood tends to be non-aggressive food. (Notice, I said tends, I do know of some people who declare 3-alarm chile to be comforting but I'm going with larger populations.) Starches often provide the dominent note, but slow cooked meat may also provide a soft enough texture. Some examples include jook, mac and cheese, pot roast, chicken and dumplings, pudding, jello, rice pudding, mashed potatoes (Kartoffelbrei if you want in in German, away from the anglo reference) etc.

                        1. Comfort food is food you don't have to think about. If you can coomune with a food so completely that it is all feeling, all taste, all mouth feel, that is comfort food. If you have to wonder which fork to use, it ain't comfort food.

                          1 Reply
                          1. I agree with the definitions of most posters here. Just to add...Comfort food is also something that goes down easily and one serving is never enough!

                            1. Oh let's just call it what it is.

                              Lots of calories, lots of fat. Leaves you feeling lethargic and sleepy. It's comforting because your body is using all its energy to digest the food, which gives your anxiety-prone nervous system a bit of a break.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: mehfactor

                                I think that's oversimpifying things a bit.

                                Some of my favorite comfort foods -- e.g. apples and peanut butter, cubed tofu with ponzu, ramen noodles, tomato soup and rice balls -- aren't really high calorie foods, or high fat.

                                They just sort of taste good to me.

                                1. re: mehfactor

                                  I find spicy, brothy foods to be comfort foods, and they are not high in fat nor do they make me feel lethargic.

                                  1. re: mehfactor

                                    Some of my comfort foods are high in fat some aren't. I think for me, as people mentioned above, the foods are non-agressive, delicious, and can usually be eaten in quantity. Or they are a specialty treat for you.
                                    My comfort foods:
                                    fried eggplant/fried zucchini
                                    lamb burgers: ground lamb with bread, parsley, and egg
                                    linguine with clam sauce
                                    risotto, especially seafood
                                    a whole cooked fish
                                    fried fish
                                    prosciutto di parma
                                    a "fresh" wedge of parmigiano eaten with chianti or barolo
                                    really good fried pork dumplings
                                    fried shrimp rolls, steamed shrimp or scallop dumplings from Oriental Garden, chinatown, NY
                                    sesame noodles and kung pao chicken from wu liang ye
                                    shrimp stroganoff from Sabor Tropical, queens
                                    an appetizer platter and lamb korma from indian row, 6th st in manhattan
                                    coffee from a bodega with milk and sugar
                                    tres leches cake
                                    my friend's mom's rice and beans and stewed adobo chicken, with their fresh lemonade
                                    fried chicken and biscuits
                                    shrimp and grits
                                    really good sushi - that someone else is paying for, or I'm celebrating
                                    a ripe summer tomato slice on toasted bread with mayo, s&p

                                    1. re: mehfactor

                                      I agree that fat is not a necessary component, though easygoing mouth-feel is. Pho is not particularly fatty, nor is spaghetti with pesto, both of which rank pretty high on my comfort list. I will even put low-fat cottage cheese up there, too, if it's a good brand that isn't all dry and chalky. My problem isn't that I like fatty foods - my problem is eating too much food, period!

                                    2. I've thought about all of the very good replies so far. I guess I most agree with versions of QueenB's first entry.

                                      Comfort is the undefined memory of a hot oyaku-domburi prepared by Mom on a bleak, grey, cold winter day--where inside the kitchen all is warm, secure; where the steam condenses on the window; where, without knowing it, a life of extreme happiness and satisfaction is foretold in that bowl of food.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                        I grew up with my mom's Oyako don, but that isn't what is comfort food to me know. I guess my mom's chicken curry, kakiage udon and natto and rice are mine. But you've inspired me to try to make the Oyako Don at home!

                                      2. I think of "heavy" foods as comfort foods. Macaroni and cheese, really creamy mashed potatoes, and I'm surprised that nobody mentioned meatloaf.

                                        Another thing that's comfort food to me is really good tuna salad on a toasted bagel, open faced with good slices of tomato. Mmmm.

                                        Oh, and one more -- a really perfect hamburger and french fries. It sometimes just does the trick of what comfort food is supposed to do -- comfort.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: valerie

                                          This is what I find so amazing about food. I think of light foods as comfort foods. Things that lift me, like pho, sushi, spicy grilled chicken on rice with a fried egg (ok, not so light, but still...).

                                          I have to agree about the burger and fries. I've been going through a lot of medical things lately, and each time we leave the doctor my wife takes me for a burger, fries and a shake.

                                        2. Comfort food to me is food for the soul. When the weather is dreary, when I feel down, or not well, and needed something that's nourishing and makes me feel whole again.

                                          Better than medicine.

                                          1. Comfort food is what you want to eat when life is lousy because you know eating it will make everything better.

                                            1. I can't hope to compete with the poetic accuracy of Sam's posting. But for a "dictionary" definition how does this sound?

                                              Comestibles which by their physical characteristics or association with a particular event create an enhanced sense of well-being for an individual or group. The effects may be caused by smelll, taste, or consumption; or to a lesser extent by thinking of the item.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                So what you're saying is that comfort food is food whose emotional appeal and effects match or supercede the gustatory appeal?