A Cook's Diary

The psychology of comfort food

Ben sent me a link to a New York Times article about a hotel selling TV dinners for $30 a tray and passing them off as comfort food. My first impression was How weird! and How ironic! The weirdness and irony multiplied as I read through the article and realized that the hotel’s executive chef considered TV dinners as comfort food although in a topsy-turvy way.

Comfort food is nostalgia. It is about being reminded of happy memories of aromas permeating the kitchen where mom is cooking, of family dinners and barbecues and picnics… My Mac’s dictionary widget defines it as food that gives a sense of well-being, often high in sugar or carbohydrate content, and associated with childhood and home-cooking. Dictionary.com’s definition is “Food that is simply prepared and associated with a sense of home or contentment.” It’s all about feeling good. That is why many people often confuse good food with comfort food. For many, comfort food is the best food.

But for Mr. Rubin, the chef, it’s different. His fondest memories of food are those of with times when mom and dad weren’t there and he was alone with the babysitter.

Mr. Rubin waxed nostalgic: “I got TV dinners when my parents was going out to dinner and the baby sitter was coming over. That was a treat for me: Oh, cool! I got the little cake thing. There were the vegetables I could ignore because my mom wasn’t around.” [New York Times]

I thought that was really sad. It reminded me so much of Roald Dahl’s Matilda and her sense of wonderment when she first discovered real food on her visit to her teacher Miss Honey’s house. And I actually felt sorry for the guy. But then I realized he is trying to sell the idea that TV dinners can actually be comfort food and the sympathy flew out of the window.

But what’s even more weird are the findings of the Cornell University study mentioned in the article.

From Exploring Comfort Food Preferences Across Age and Gender:

A survey of over 1,000 North Americans conducted by the researchers from the Food and Brand Lab found that America’s favorite comfort foods are: 1. Potato chips (23%), 2. Ice cream (14%), 3. Cookies (12%), 4. Chocolate (11%), 5. Pizza or Pasta (11%), 6. Steak/Burgers (9%), 7. Casseroles (9%), 8. Soup (7%), 9. Vegetables (4%), and 10. Salad (3%).

Junk food occupying the first six slots. Gee… Of course, 1,000 subjects hardly represent the world population. They can’t even be considered representative of the entire North American population. But the findings still made my eyes pop and my jaw drop. Literally.

Well, whatever your choice of comfort food, eating comfort food (usually high sugar or high carb — now I know why eating cakes and pastries is so comforting) is said to be good for you because the sense of well-being triggers a biochemical reaction that reduces stress. It might clog your arteries in a couple of years but, momentarily, it’s a stress buster.

Obviously, the consumption of comfort food is related with oral fixation. People indulge or over-indulge in comfort food to replace some other lack in their lives. And the over-indulgence can lead to obesity. In which case, the consumption of comfort food as a feel-good thing becomes contradictory because obesity can farther undermine a person’s self-image. You know, you eat to feel good and end up feeling even worse.

Duh, what a screwed up specie the human race is.

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