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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Comfort Food

The other evening, I asked a handful of friends what their comfort foods were. It is a wonderful icebreaker question that never fails to reveal surprises. Some responses reflect a particular cultural or ethnic orientation which might be expected but there is a dimension to that question which goes to the heart of a much deeper matter. Here is a hint; it’s not about the food.

I’ve posed this question often enough that I’ve learned a few things about what qualifies something as comforting. It turns out it is the association of the food and a person—the one who prepared that dish for us and the occasion on which we first tasted it. Almost always it was a deeply loved parent, grandparent, aunt or sometimes an unrelated caregiver; someone with whom we felt safe and accepted. Try this out for yourself and I’ll wager that the responses you get will invariably mention that person and often recall when that particular dish was first served.

There is a name for this memory, it is a Madeleine de Proust, taken from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, an involuntary recall triggered by a taste, smell, sound or any sensory input. These memories are powerful mnemonics for an emotional state of being, one that most often is associated with our childhood. In my own case it is butterfly noodles browned in butter—a pedestrian dish to be sure, and one I have never been quite able to recreate. Somehow this two-ingredient meal eludes me.

I ate it first as a child of about four or five years of age. Why this dish? I was living with my maternal grandparents, my parents dealing with a newborn baby brother and life on a not very hospitable army base in a misbegotten town where my father was stationed after the war as part of the training cadre for the Korean conflict. I don’t recall why I was in need of comfort but suppose I might have been missing my parents or feeling under the weather. Whatever occasioned the preparation of this food it was one of those things my grandmother knew how to cook. She was unaccustomed to preparing meals, not out of any sloth but because she was fortunate enough to have a housekeeper who did all the cooking.

Until my teens, that was my go-to food whenever I was feeling out of sorts and remarkably it had the power to restore my equilibrium. But somewhere along the way its power was diminished and by the time I was in High School it was forgotten. I haven’t eaten it since but the memory of it lingers—or rather the memory of feeling protected, nurtured, and loved. Every last one of us is in need of acceptance, security, and what some might describe as unconditional love. Often, we spend our entire lives trying to recreate that feeling. The food is just a conduit.

If only we humans could evoke that feeling whenever we were vexed, depressed, hurt or bitter, the world would be a much better place. But with age we forget that even if it was for only a moment there once was a time we were safe and fully loved. Truly, what does it cost us to help someone we know, or even better someone we don’t really know to stand in that moment once again. What greater gift could we give anyone?

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