It is summer and summer is in some ways a nostalgic season as are its postcards. I am Italian and I realize that many times when I want an ice cream, it is not just for its taste or because it is hot, but because of the memories it gives me.
Certain foods provide a sentimental effect when they are consumed. Comfort foods make us feel good because of the meaning that we give them. They form part of our social construction: we not only eat them, we share them, we take pictures of them. So we associate dishes with a family member, a significant person, a suggestive moment that we lived, and we tend to “use” food to find the scent of this or that experience again.
However, many times there is confusion regarding the term ‘comfort food’. In an article in the New York Times called “The Myth of comfort food”, Hoffmann talks about the “calorically elevated comfort food category” that gives the illusion of changing our mood. Many times the image we have of the concept of comfort food is that of food which is high in fat. The reason could be that this category of food includes traditional dishes, which we tasted at the family table. The idea that traditional food is high calorie food is, in my opinion, wrong, but understandable. If we read the major traditional cookbooks in Mediterranean countries, e.g. 1080 Recetas de Cocina in Spain, Il cucchiaio d’argento in Italy, Greek cuisine by Vefa Alexiadou, we can confess that sometimes the recipes can be a little “heavy”, due mainly to the quantity of basic ingredients like butter and oil. This does not change the huge value that these recipes and books have for our different cultures.
What Does “Comfort Food” Mean?
It doesn’t only mean chocolate. Comfort food is linked to a personal feeling but also a cultural and historical one. It depends on the ingredients and the habits that we grew up with, in a specific country at a particular historical moment; it shapes our identity. In the same way, we like to taste things, or we accept a dish also because we have been taught to do so.
Jennifer Berg, director of graduate food studies at New York University, (quoted by A.S. Choi) notes that food is particularly important when you become part of a diaspora, separated from your mother culture. “It’s the last vestige of culture that people shed,” says Berg. “There’s some aspects of maternal culture that you’ll lose right away. First is how you dress, because if you want to blend in or be part of a larger mainstream culture the things that are the most visible are the ones that you let go. With food, it is something you are engaging in hopefully three times a day, and so there are more opportunities to connect to memory and family and place. It’s the hardest to give up.”
From this cultural point of view, it is curious to see that often we share common favourite comfort food: for Spanish people it could be the cold soup gazpacho, for Italians the lasagne or gnocchi, for Greeks a chicken soup with avgolemono – egg and lemon- sauce.
There is also a category of comfortable food which is not necessary recognized by a culture or society but that has a strict personal value, I remember a French Swiss friend once told me “I love the insipid spinaches of my grandmother”. And you? What is your favourite comfort food?
Written by Francesca Bisiani, Terminology trainee at TermCoord.