Comfort Food: Nostalgia in a Bowl

Ask five people what foods they consider comforting, and you’re likely to get five different answers.

That’s because comfort food is all about nostalgia—memories of a parent at the stove, family gatherings around the table, even a dish you hated as a kid but inexplicably long for once you’re old enough to have a kitchen of your own. So it’s no wonder that when you’re feeling low, homesick, or just plain sick, nothing sounds better than curling up on the couch with a blanket and a hot bowl of something you grew up eating.

Historians differ on the origins of most food concepts, and comfort food is no exception. The Oxford English Dictionary points to a 1977 Washington Post article about Southern food (and shrimp and grits, a beloved dish of the American South, in particular) as the first use of the term. But the late food historian Lynne Olver dug up references to comfort food in the U.S. dating back as far as 1965.

Origins of the phrase aside, many people from different cultures agree on the notion of comfort food, if not the individual dishes themselves: foods that are easy to eat (so, often loaded with carbs, like Spanish paella, Japanese katsu curry, and Italian gnocchi), hot and steaming dishes (chicken noodle soup or Vietnamese pho), and, most importantly, foods that trigger those fond childhood memories.

Your favorite comfort foods are a product of where you come from, where your parents come from, and, as palates become more global, where your neighbors come from, too. This last point helps explain how Vietnamese pho and Korean bi bim bap, relatively unknown to many Americans a generation ago, came up more than once in my highly unscientific office poll.

Finally, does comfort food really comfort? Well, the jury’s out on that, too. But hey, if you think a plate of rice and beans can perk you up when you’re feeling low, isn’t that all that matters?

While you’re thinking of your own favorite comfort foods, take a look at some beloved dishes of eaters the world over, courtesy of our Your Shot community.

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