The Urban Dictionary defines comfort food as follows: “Food that gives emotional comfort to the one eating it, [such as] favorite foods of childhood, or linked to a person, place, or time with which the food has a positive association.” In other words, food that warms you and makes you forget your troubles. These might include your mother’s meatloaf, your grandmother’s chicken soup, and baked goods made from scratch. The kind of food you might find at a retro diner, pub, social house, or communal kitchen, like two Check, Please! restaurants, River Roast and Fat Rice.
For the most part, comfort food is not for those who are counting calories or carbs. But there’s nothing quite like it for lifting your spirits, especially with likeminded friends in a welcoming atmosphere. Given that its appeal is so often rooted in nostalgia (and perhaps regional, depending on heritage and upbringing), each person might have their own ideas about which foods show them the most love. Here are just a few that are pretty universal, and where they came from:
Mac ‘n’ Cheese: It probably won’t come as a surprise that this fat-laden favorite have been around in one way or another since Medieval times, because what’s not to like about a combination of cheese, butter, and pasta? But you might not know that its arrival in the U.S. is credited to Thomas Jefferson, who sampled different interpretations of the dish in Italy and France and liked them so much that he took notes so he could recreate them later. Back home, his attempts to make pasta failed, so he had to import it along with Parmesan cheese. No word on whether he topped it with bread crumbs, but since it’s still a big thing today, his guests must have given it the Colonial equivalent of a thumbs-up.
French Fries: You probably have a sneaking suspicion that French fries did not originate in France; if so, you’re probably right. Of course, you can’t delve into the origins of the French fry without going to the source of that starchy sustainer of civilizations everywhere: the humble potato. Its first verifiable sighting in Peru in around 2,500 BC, and its continuing popularity was (and is) due to being easy to grow and preserve, inexpensive, versatile, and filling. One story is that the French fry came about when Spanish explorers brought the potato to Belgium where fishermen, their nets coming up empty in winter, hit on the idea of forming potatoes into fish shapes and frying them. Guess who made the French fry popular in the U.S.? Thomas Jefferson again, who was the first to serve “potatoes in the French style” at a White House dinner in 1802. (As a side note, he also popularized crème brûlée.) Known as the “epicurean President,” Jefferson pioneered organic gardening, so vegetables were often on the menu, cooked in interesting ways.
Meatloaf: Each country seems to have its own version of this, thanks to the invention of the meat grinder. The dish originated in Europe, and depending upon where you lived, meatloaf (in addition to the meat, of course) might include eggs, vegetables, nuts, breads, spices, crackers, and even fruits mixed in and topped with tomato sauce, cheese, or bacon. It is easy to prepare — just use your hands to blend all the ingredients in a big bowl, transfer it to a loaf pan with the toppings, and throw it in the oven. Meatloaf became really popular in the U.S. at a time when many people needed comfort in a big way: the Great Depression.
Cobbler: This is another example of American ingenuity…in need of a tasty dessert, the early American colonists devised a way to use roughly the same ingredients found in biscuit dough — flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, salt — and jumble them in a baking dish with whatever local fruits happened to be on hand (peaches, cherries, blueberries, apples). Depending on where you’re from, this dish might also be called (according to What’s Cooking America) crumble, brown betty, pandowdy, crisp, sonker, bird’s nest pudding, grunt, or slump. Some of these don’t sound too appetizing, but all are delicious nonetheless!
In this darkest, coldest month of the year in the famously icy Midwestern tundra, you might as well indulge in a little comfort food. After all, swimsuit season is several months away.