During the Ina In A Year Project, where I cooked an average of twenty recipes every week, I enjoyed a lot of delicious food. I shared this food with people I love a great deal…family, friends, coworkers, clients. The experience was incredibly rewarding and one of the most difficult endeavors I’ve ever tackled.
A few weeks into the project, I began to notice an emerging theme. Eating incredibly delicious food on a regular basis with people I love had an emotional effect on me. I felt delight. I felt surprise. I felt pleasure. With each bite, I could feel the delight or surprise or pleasure wash over me like a balm, and even though I was experiencing strong feelings while eating good food in the company of others, I knew the myth.
Food cannot comfort.
If I had to only choose one memory that captured in full the essence of my year-long culinary adventure it would be the strong waves of emotions I felt when I enjoyed food that at times transcended my ability to put the experience into words. There were moments that blew me away with delight. I would look into the eyes of the people who were tasting the same things I was tasting, and we would exchange a knowing glance, connecting over the moving experience. And yet, I knew the myth.
Food cannot comfort.
There were times when tasting a perfect bowl of Beef Bourguignon, or a piping hot Buttermilk Biscuit slathered with butter and jam, or a creamy risotto full of Parmesan cheese would hit a place in my being that was more than just the combination of flavors on my tongue. It contributed to an experience that soothed me, nourished me, reminded me of how satisfying delicious food can be. Eating French beef stew or homemade biscuits or cheesy risotto ushered in strong feelings. And yet, I knew the myth.
Food cannot comfort.
We have all been in situations where we are hurting, angry, sad, tired, spent, or frustrated. We need care. We crave comfort. We seek out anything that can bring a relief from the negative feelings we are experiencing. And because our souls are housed in physical bodies that require eating to stay alive, food can appear to be an avenue for real comfort. Our taste buds can be a gateway to pleasure, and if the thing I am tasting makes me feel good, isn’t food the source of comfort?
It is easy to see how the myth of comfort food begins, yet that does not make any less a myth.
Our needs for care and comfort are not wrong. In fact, they are good, reasonable, necessary needs. The ways in which we each individually choose to meet those needs for care and comfort matter. The act of meeting needs is one of the ways we exercise hospitality for those who are hurting, including our own selves. Maybe you love a bath. Maybe you love a heavy blanket. Maybe you love a run. Maybe you love being with people. Maybe you love being alone. Or maybe, you love a cup of hot soup, a bowl of cold cereal, or a perfect fried egg. Food can be one of many ways we provide care and comfort to ourselves and others in times of need.
And yet, food cannot comfort.
Food is a tool that delivers a temporary sensation of comfort, but food can not deliver true comfort. The almost indiscernible difference between the truth and the myth of the comfort associated with food, is the difference between using food as a tool to express comfort and using food as a substitute for comfort.
Comfort is the experience of another soul stepping into our place of pain or need and creating space where we can feel loved, cared for, connected with, changed, healed, soothed, heard, seen, known, with. Food cannot comfort because food cannot love or change or heal or sustain connection.
Food is a tool, and a very powerful avenue for expressing love and providing tangible methods of connection, but food cannot comfort. Food can nourish. Food can please. Food can express care. Food can delight and draw people to the table and be the thing over which you connect. But food on its own cannot comfort.
The comfort we crave when we are sad is to know we are not alone when we cry. When we are sad, we need community. Community can comfort.
The comfort we crave when we are exhausted is to know there is rest, or hope of relief, or reassurance that things will change over time. When we are exhausted, we need to rest, or remember that relief will come, or hear truth from a faithful friend who can remind us that our exhausting season will not last. Rest, relief, and reminders of truth can comfort.
The comfort we crave when we are disappointed is to know our heart is seen. When we are disappointed, we need connection. Connection can comfort.
The comfort we crave when we have been battered by the world and left for dead is to know our needs matter. When we are wrung out, we need our needs to be attended to thoughtfully, nursed back to health so we can return to the ring for another round. Having our needs met thoughtfully can comfort.
The myth of comfort food is that food can deliver the true things we need in any given situation. It cannot. It never will. At best it will taste good, but then it will be over. And if the food was looked to as a substitute for the real agents of comfort, then ultimately the food will disappoint. Every time.
If, however, the food was kept in its rightful place, as a tool, a delivery mechanism, an avenue for genuine agents of comfort, then the food and the experience of eating that food will become a sweet memory and a place of connection, community, and true lasting comfort.