- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

Heavens, call out the National Guard, the Boy Scouts and perhaps a brigade of grandmothers wielding spatulas and vinegar cruets.

“Global comfort foods are here. Culinary comfort is not just chicken soup and mashed potatoes anymore. Comfort food is reflecting the internationalization of the American pantry.”

So says the Food Network in its culinary predictions for 2006, advising the citizenry that it is perfectly acceptable to comfort oneself with pad Thai rather than macaroni and cheese.

(Legal disclaimer: No pad Thai was harmed in the making of this article. Pad Thai is defined as rice noodles with vegetables, lime juice, fish sauce and ground peanuts. This article is not meant as a criticism of pad Thai, pad Thai jai or Thai foods in general.)

And now we will have an official comfort food moment of reflection:

Ah-h-h, macaroni and cheese. Mashed potatoes. O-o-o. Gravy. Waffles. Chicken-fried steak. E-e-e. Yellow cake, but not the uranium kind. O-o-o-o. E-e-e-e.

Memo from management: Please wake up Harper and send her down to the cafeteria.

At this juncture, it seems appropriate to stand fast behind all-American comfort food and question the idea that it has gone global because of a pantry raid. Comfort food belongs to America, because the concept — phraseology and all — was invented and refined by two nice American ladies quite some time ago.

Europe may have its “Slow Food” movement. But by jingo, comfort food started here.

The comely cookbook authoress Judith Olney wrote “Comforting Foods” all the way back in 1979, noting that such fare originated in “the farthest reaches of childhood: a certain dish, its aroma floating from a long-ago kitchen but still vital in the memory, something hot offered over and over and always after a day of wintry play; something bland that tasted rich after a week of eating nothing during illness; nursery foods; odd, peculiar little dishes … .”

Yay-y-y Judith.

Then came “Comfort Food” in 1988, a perfectly splendid cookbook by New York food editor Holly Garrison that was steeped with nostalgia of the most loving and legitimate kind. Granny’s fried chicken, Mother’s meatloaf, Mamie Eisenhower’s Million Dollar Fudge, popovers, creamed spinach, banana pudding and grits “are safer than drugs or alcohol and less expensive than compulsive shopping.”

Yay-y-y Holly.

Now, there is nothing to say that bangers and mash, fagioli, empanadas, avgolemono, raclette, schi, kim chi, dal, pho, kugel and doro wat can’t comfort the world’s eaters. They can. But puh-lease. Let us at least credit the comfort food-as-therapy concept to Judith and Holly. Thank you, ladies.

Memo from management: Give Harper $5 from the petty cash box and send her to the Tasty Diner.

Speaking of which, most everyone knows that comfort food has become comfort cuisine in swank diner-themed eateries for the rich and famous, where tapioca pudding gets dolled up with creme fraiche and cloudberries. Oh well, we won’t deny Leo DiCaprio his nursery food.

But as cookbook maven Mrs. Garrison noted 18 years ago, “Comfort foods can be as different as the people who eat them.”

Indeed, there are brand name loyalties (“Hey waiter, take this back. I said Hellman’s and Bumble Bee on Wonder Bread, not Kraft and Starkist on Pepperidge Farm.” Time of day matters, too. Macaroni and cheese is swell at 6 p.m., but questionable at 6 a.m. when the French toast shift takes over.

Some will eat anything as long as Mama/Granny/Great Aunt Madge/Poppy made it.

There are peculiar comfort combinations, like adding a layer of Utz potato chips to that perfect Hellman’s, Bumble Bee and Wonder Bread assemblage.

There are moments of comfort food shame in which we slyly help ourselves to hot fudge out in the kitchen while everyone else struggles through the couscous. Some among us also have eaten company food before the company got to it.

There are even clandestine comfort food collaborations between several parties, generally preceded by the phrase, “I know you’re not supposed to have this, but … .” Sometimes the dog is in on it, particularly when a roast is involved.

Why, even vegans — strict vegetarians who eat no dairy foods or eggs — have their comfort food.

“Sure,” says a grinning vegan pal. “Cream of Wheat and Rice Krispy treats.”

And just in case anyone needs any more explanation about comfort foods, researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a national survey of 411 people about their own choices, concluding that all those toothsome goodies “evoke a psychologically comfortable and pleasurable state” and that “social-affective contexts can influence food preferences.”

Memo to self: Pick up Utz, Bumble Bee, Hellman’s.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and mashed potatoes for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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