Comfort food is a sham.
I like matzo brei as much as the next guy, and expect me to reach for that last chocolate chip cookie. But when comfort food becomes depersonalized and taken to absurd extremes, count me out of the Luther Burger party.
Not to rain on the collective bacon grease macaroni and cheese hot dog parade, but the majority of so-called “comfort food” served in New York City and across the country exists merely to deceive. In fact, the next haute fried chicken leg or blackberry pie shake you consume will bamboozle your senses and confound your memory. Yes, comfort food usually tastes indulgently delicious, if cardiovascular assault. Yet, delude yourself no longer: you’re not eating comfort food, no matter how full and “whole” it makes you feel.
In my mind, comfort food means cuisine that recalls a joyous warmth previously experienced, a childhood memory of happiness or a remembrance of things past. We live in search of lost time, and in our most stressful moments, returning to a more peaceful and “comfortable” moment fulfills dual desires to escape the present and recapture forgotten, idyllic days. Therein, comfort food constitutes those bites that transport and envelop the individual in a nostalgic glow. Proust’s madeline serves as the perfect example–read the excerpt here.
So all those hipsters and frat boys smoking pot and chowing down on meatballs (more on the pot-food intersection later this week) aren’t eating comfort food if their mom never made them spaghetti when they felt sick or if dad never took them for meatball heroes when they hit a home run in Little League. Instead, they’re occupying a fantasy world in which unhealthy and oftentimes disgustingly heavy foods trigger false memories and a sense of well-being. In effect, they occupy a hyperreality, a simulation of an experience that becomes more real than the actual experience itself. Comfort food has been Disneyfied, and I, for one, am not pleased.
Tuesday, I visited the Missouri Baking Co., a bakery on The Hill in St. Louis that provided the desserts for my bar mitzvah. I love the amaretto macaroons, simultaneously light and chewy, heady with almond flavor. And the chocolate tops, sandy little butter cookies crowned with a dollop of chocolate icing that tastes like birthday cake and cupcakes eaten on snow days. For me, these Italian cookies are my madeline, but probably not for the average splotchy beared schlub trying to find a sugar rush cause he lost his job as a publishing assistant.
My grandfather used to take me and my brother out for lunch, and we’d go to a grungy hot dog stand called Woofies that served Vienna Beef. Without fail, I’d order a Kathy Dog, a regular ‘ol tubesteak covered in melted cheese product and pickles. No haute cuisine product, Kathy Dogs tasted great as a result of company and milieu, not wagyu beef or gruyere. And at the old Busch Stadium, the white concrete spaceship with the arches where Brock and Gibson played, I’d get plain wieners with my dad that came smashed into plain, bland, mildly sweet buns. Bad hotdogs hold a special place in my heart.
But I’ll never claim that mac and cheese is a comfort food for me, since I rarely enjoyed Kraft sponsored dinners, all gooey technicolor sauce and flaccid noodles. The scotch egg at The Breslin? I enjoyed the interplay of salty sausage, gelatinous white, and liquid yolk, but this bizarre creation hails from somewhere far, far away from my Midwest home.
Go ahead, stuff your face with pork belly, but if you never ate the stuff growing up, don’t bother telling me that it’s comfort food for you. At that point, you’re not searching for lost time—you’re searching for time that never was.