The Power, and Limitations, of Comfort Food

Fine cuisine and emotional nourishment: When commentator and chef Gillian Clark prepares comfort food for her restaurant patrons, she knows there's a limit to what meatloaf can cure.

JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Eighty restaurant meals. That's not the number of meals eaten out by your local restaurant critic last year, but by your average American diner. According to the latest issue of Food Technology, a trade magazine, diners still want the down-home comfort foods, though. In other words, they want their meat loaf and macaroni and cheese, and it seems they take extra comfort in letting someone else do the cooking. Chef and commentator Gillian Clark knows a thing or do about the delicate balance between fine cuisine and emotional nourishment.

GILLIAN CLARK:

`We were hoping to find some comfort at your restaurant last night,' she wrote. `My husband and I were mourning the death of our cat of 18 years, and our candidate lost the election.' Along with happy news from my customers, I often get sad letters like this one. The writer continues to express her disappointment that the roasted chicken, poster child of comfort foods, did not chase away her blues as anticipated.

Then there was the duck, neatly scored, seared to medium-rare perfection, and sent to the young woman having dinner with her date. `It's not right.' The server handed me the plate. I cooked it a little longer and sent it back. The third time the duck came back, I put my foot down. `You have to cook another one,' the serve pleaded. `She's crying.' I looked at the plate. Everything was just as I had placed it: the fanned slices of meat, the vegetables, not a flake of parsley disturbed. I knew the duck was the last thing that woman wanted to cut into right now. She would much rather turn her knife onto the man who had taken her out to dinner to tell her it was over.

I'm a professional chef. I received countless hours of culinary training. I have no training, however, in the treatment of anxiety or depressive disorders. But I know that the successful dining facility has to do more than stave off hunger; it has to satisfy a host of emotional needs. The way the menu reads, the colors in the room and the texture of the napkins all have to work to make customers feel good. Everything's going to be all right so long as the waitress smiles and the chicken comes to you just as it always has. From my kitchen window, I've seen food work mood-altering miracles. The sourpuss dragged in by a friend is rattling the wall hangings with laughter by the time the Apple Pan Doughty arrives.

Still, I know my limitations. There are some things my food and I can't fix. Like when the table of four gets up to leave because Jane's over-easy egg isn't over-easy enough. Sometimes it's not the egg or the duck that's the problem. Like most people who make their living in food service, I believe in the power of food. It can be the warm blanket or a sympathetic pat on the hand. Eating at your favorite place can be grounding or reassuring. There are restaurants that rate guests' moods from one to 10, and encourage servers with incentives to lift a table from a cranky two to a higher-tipping and more-likely-to-return eight.

But even these hardworking staffs find that some downs in our lives bring us so low no pleasure center stimulated can get us out of our funk. We have no choice but to stay down there and accept the limitations of our favorite places, our candidates, our pets and our companions. Those sad feelings were probably meant to stay for a while. It may be that clinking silverware slows the healing process and leaves us ill-equipped to suffer the slings and arrows without a well-sauced, medium-rare security blanket. Go ahead and have a good cry. When you're ready for polite company, we'll be here.

LYDEN: Chef Gillian Clark runs the Colorado Kitchen in Washington, DC.

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