Whether from the human suffering of world events or the strains of our own lives, we all need a bit of comfort every day. For many, the embrace of a loved one or the joyous screams of a playful offspring provide warmth and satisfaction. For others, as Weekend Edition Food essayist Bonny Wolf, observes, a burger and fries, capped off with a slice of apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream does the trick.
You don't need the National Institutes of Health to tell you that a plate of mac 'n cheese is good for you. Ditto mashed potatoes, hot chocolate, chicken soup and meatloaf.
Bonny Wolf is a regular contributor to Kitchen Window and to NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She is working on a book of food essays for St. Martin's Press.
When the going gets tough, the tough order … oatmeal or rice pudding. They made us feel safe as children and they still make us feel safe as grownups.
So it's no surprise that after 9-11, restaurant kitchens reported they were serving up more bowls of stewed chicken and chocolate pudding than ever before. And in home kitchens, there was a revival of potato mashing and pancake flipping. Anthropologists tell us that our predecessors would chow down on high-calorie, fatty foods because some brain wave told them to grab a leg of deep fried Tyrannosaurus Rex whenever possible to store up fat for leaner times.
And the Stress Age Homo Sapiens of 2005 has not evolved much from Stone Age man.
University of California physiologists say nervous tension causes the adrenal glands to release so-called stress hormones. Lab rats respond by seeking pleasure, including eating high-energy food. For rodents, this is usually sucrose and lard. For humans, it's more likely a pint of Cherry Garcia. Indulgence tells the brain to relax.
A University of Illinois study has found that men find comfort in the foods their mothers made for them (mashed potatoes, pasta, meat and soup). The study says that women, and I quote, "are not generally accustomed to having hot food prepared for them" so look to less labor-intensive sweets for comfort. Ice cream is gender neutral. When stressed out, we all scream for ice cream.
Then, of course, there are Dr. Atkins' carbs or what we used to call starch. Everything involving the potato, for example, is comforting. French fries are a favorite, particularly of the college-aged. Apparently, comfort food and hangover food share the appeal of grease.
For me, comfort often comes more from making food, than from actually eating. It's the process: wiping off the countertops, taking things out of the cupboard, chopping, mixing and filling the house with good smells.
Find a little comfort in the kitchen – the best place to be in times of stress – and everything's right with the world. Just don't turn on the news.
Macaroni and Cheese
This recipe is adapted from the one in Marrion Burros' Cooking for Comfort (Simon & Schuster 2003), a good source of many comfort foods. She got it from the Canal House restaurant in New York City's Soho Grand Hotel. Burros recommends cavatappi, a short s-shaped pasta that looks like a small corkscrew. If you can't find that, try elbow macaroni, farfalle or fusilli. She says good cheese is critical to the success of the dish and suggests a white cheddar aged at least two years and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
1 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups low-fat milk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
10 ounces extra-sharp aged white cheddar plus 2 ounces, grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ to ½ teaspoon hot pepper sauce, to taste
8 ounces corkscrew pasta
2 tablespoons grated good parmesan
In a large saucepan, melt the butter and cook the onion over low heat until it is soft but not browned, 5-7 minutes. Stir in the flour. Remove from the heat and whisk in the milk until thoroughly blended. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring, until the mixture just begins to thicken. Remove from the heat and stir in the mustard, the 10 ounces of cheddar, the salt, pepper, nutmeg and hot pepper sauce.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions, until just al dente. Drain but do not rinse. Stir immediately into the prepared cheese sauce until well blended. Adjust the seasonings.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Spoon the mixture into a 9x13-inch baking dish. Top with the last 2 ounces of cheddar and the parmesan.
Place in the bottom third of the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, until it is hot, bubbling and golden.
The finished casserole can be refrigerated before baking. Let the dish return to room temperature before putting in the oven.