The Real Meaning of Comfort Food

By Faye Zhang ’17

There are times when only a big box of ribs will do. Usually those times come after days already full of excess. Country fair and fried Twinkie kinds of days. Emotionally laden kinds of days—days in response to which doctors exhort patients to “not eat their feelings”. Yeah, right. People have been eating their feelings since Eve took a bite of that nice apple.

Comfort Food Coast Cafe

So I make a quick check of Yelp—these ribs better be quality ribs—and run out to the recommended rib joint on River Street named “Coast Cafe” and make my purchase: three whole pork BBQ ribs with a side of collard greens and string beans (to be healthy). When my order comes, it comes nestled in a styrofoam box, embraced by two pieces of aluminum foil. The heat sweats through the box and the plastic happy face’d bag.

When the box pops open, there it is: the meat tar glistening, fat smacking, heaven smelling rack of ribs that’s been waiting in the promised land.

Comfort food has existed for at least as long as fire and probably before (Mongol warriors stored raw mutton meat under their saddles as a quick pick-me-up snack—and invented steak tartare. Not long after came the chopped steak, and then the hamburger).

But what makes comfort food so comforting? Is it their hit-all combination of fat, sugar, and salt? Is it their connection with childhood memories? Louis Szathmary, the late Hungarian-American celebrity chef, theorized that men love hamburgers because the buns remind them of the maternal bosom. Whatever the “it” factor, we all recognize and are drawn to cues such as the sizzle of meat, the crackling of fries in oil, the sweetness of cream, and the carb-y heft of bread.

More interesting, however, is the question of what comfort food, well, comforts. The pure physical reasons we are drawn to comfort food involves its nutritional makeup. We crave carbs and fat as our body’s most readily used form of energy. It’s no coincidence that ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs)—products meant to treat severe malnutrition—often contain calorie dense peanuts, whole milk, and sugar.

Perhaps it is also not a coincidence Colonel (Harland) Sanders began doling out fried chicken dinners in front of a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky during the Great Depression. By 1938, Sanders went so far as to sponsor “relief banquets” for families on welfare; one imagines his chicken featured prominently. And then there are advertisements hawking products such as ice cream and french fries, screaming their ability to make people happy, loved, or even sexy. Something about comfort food goes deeper than mere bones and muscles.

The city of Cambridge’s great proliferation of educational institutions often mask the fact that it is a real city with residents who aren’t temporary collegiate settlers, and that the only available food isn’t from wood-paneled college dining halls. To dig deeper into the true meaning of comfort food in this city, we must venture beyond salad bars and serving trays and into the messy, gritty streets. As of 2012, 14.4% of all persons and 9.9% of families in Cambridge live below the poverty line. Historically, many of these people lived in an area known as “Area Four” (formerly a landfill), bordered on the north by Hampshire Street, on the south by Massachusetts Avenue, on the west by Prospect Street, and on the east by the Grand Junction Railroad tracks.

Coast Cafe, the Yelp-recommended rib joint, is located in Area Four. The “Coast” in the name refers to a now little-known moniker for the southern half of Area Four. No one is sure how Area Four got this nickname. Perhaps it is because the area bordered the Charles River. Or perhaps it is an ironic allusion to the upper crust East Coast college kids next door. One may never know the origin of the name, but perhaps we may guess at the origin of the food.

Boiled down to the bare bones, comfort food is poor man’s food—in all cultures. Cheap, easy-to-make, and above all, filling, dishes ranging from macaroni and cheese to meatloaf to fried rice both warmed the body and allowed thrifty cooks to use scraps from previous meals. Emotional connotations would have been quick to follow. Fullness equaled security. Security equaled comfort equaled love. Perhaps Szathmary’s assertions about the maternal bosom aren’t so farfetched; after all, the most idyllic childhood memories are centered around baking a warm, yeasty loaf of bread with mom.

Perhaps comfort food can never be fully explained. Its essence encompasses a myriad of textures and tastes: fat, salt, sugar, umami, creamy, slippery. It feeds all of our primal needs. But there is that mysterious way in which mere food—made of dead (or nearly dead) ingredients—can so easily transcend the physical and deeply affect the social and emotional realm. What happens in between?

That’s something to think about. But at the moment, my ape brain is wholly occupied by the steaming meal in front of me. I gnaw on the ribs, holding the ends with my bare hands. The thick meat sticks nicely between my teeth, the tendons crackle, and the syrupy barbecue glaze slithers between my lips. And the only word I think, or rather feel, is content.


This blog post was originally posted on The Harvard Advocate Blog. You can find the original article, and more of Faye’s work, here:  

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