The complicated problem of “comfort food.”

Comfort food: Potato chips. Ice cream. A jar of peanut butter and a spoon. Mac ‘n cheese. Grits. Meatloaf. Mashed potatoes.

Or maybe: Chicken pot pie. Warm banana bread. Poached eggs on buttered toast. Rice pudding.

Or maybe none of that, which is why we’re here on Monday instead of Sunday, as promised.

This post started out as a sunny, “how can we get creative with things like mashed potatoes and grits” kind of post. It started as a Sunday morning post, the kind of writing/reading that would be comforting and enjoyable to read in the morning, and then lead to some creative cooking in the afternoon and a nurturing, comforting dinner in the evening.

As I started digging into the history of the term “comfort food,” though, this post seemed less like Sunday reading and more like a Monday morning, “let’s take a look and think about this” piece. And it starts in an unlikely place. Here goes:

Last week I met a colleague for lunch to catch up on what’s happening at Kindred Place. We were talking about trends in parenting and family dynamics, and he said something that threw me. In his mind, the public health work around ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) was at least as old as our organizational work, which began in 1982.

I was surprised because this friend pays close attention to detail and gets deeply involved with whatever work he chooses to do, including his work on behalf of Kindred Place. The concept of ACEs and taking a public health, public policy, and social service approach to mitigate them had become a personal passion for him. And he — mistakenly — thought the term originated in the work of psychotherapy and social service work decades ago.

On that last point, he was partially correct. The research around adverse childhood experiences and their long-term negative effects did begin decades ago. But the way we now use the term ACEs is a newer practice. And the work did not originate in psychotherapy or social service, but in an obesity clinic.

If someone like my colleague didn’t know the backstory, then it occurs to me others might not either. Maybe that’s you, too. So I’ll give a very short version here and offer a link to a longer, more thorough history for anyone interested in learning. Note: The linked article includes stories that could be triggering to anyone who experienced abuse or neglect as a child. In fact, the rest of this post may not be suitable for anyone who has a history of trauma that connects in some way to food or eating. If that’s you, please consider skipping this post and coming back another day.

In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti, then chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine, was trying to figure out why more than half of the patients in his obesity clinic dropped out. Year after year, the trend held steady. Patients who were on track and seeming to improve, in terms of weight loss and physical health, would just stop coming.

So Dr. Felitti started interviewing some of the patients in a structured, small study of his own, asking them questions about their health and behavior, looking for patterns. In one of the interviews, he misspoke and instead of asking a patient how old she was when she became sexually active, he asked how much she weighed. The answer, forty pounds, led to her disclosing a history of childhood abuse that I won’t describe here.

That encounter led Dr. Felitti to begin looking at the connection between childhood abuse (specifically sexual abuse) and obesity. It probably won’t be surprising that in Dr. Felitti’s interviews (and the thousands of others that were conducted as part of the larger ACE study), “comfort food” was one of the many themes and patterns the researchers found. Though some of the patients in the obesity clinic overate for physical protection (hiding inside a “fat” body, for example, which was a very common response), others revealed using food to self-soothe. The most soothing foods were usually high-calorie, high-fat, simple carbohydrates.

The resulting research, which was panned when first presented at an obesity conference, eventually became one of the largest public health studies in the U.S. The findings from that study now inform everything from social service work to legislative policy.

(Side note: Ironically, Tennessee was at the forefront of ACEs work a decade ago, though there has been no change in the high rates of child physical and sexual mistreatment since then. We know better, but there is no evidence that we’re actually doing better.)

The term “ACEs” is so common now that it’s increasingly misused, misinterpreted, monetized (because, of course, in America), and weaponized in local, state, and national politics. More on all of that another day. (And if you want to read the full, and thorough, piece about the history of ACEs work, here’s the link.)

The important takeaway from that abbreviated background is that the ACEs work began as an obesity study. Hold that thought for a minute; we’re coming back to it.

In 1966 the Palm Beach Post ran a story with the headline “Sad Child Overeats,” and in that story was this line: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.”

A decade later, in 1977, writing for The Washington Post and from an entirely different perspective, Phyllis Richman described shrimp and grits as “comfort food.” Apparently, this happy context and the idea of comfort food was stickier, as a marketing person might say, than the “Sad Child Overeats” association. So Richman got credit for coining the term, even though she later wrote (also in WaPo, in 2013) that she didn’t believe it was she who originated it.

In 2015, writing for The Atlantic (“Why Comfort Food Comforts”), Cari Romm dug into findings from yet another research study — one that did come from the field of psychology and that in some ways bridges “Sad Child Overeats” and a happy shrimp and grits dinner. In this study, an associate professor at SUNY Buffalo, Dr. Shira Gabriel, looked at attachment style and comfort food.

“Attachment style,” to oversimplify, is psych speak for a person’s relationship with others, usually starting with parent-child attachment. The upshot of Dr. Gabriel’s work is that people who have “secure attachment” are likely to connect comfort food with social interaction. Example: making/eating something your mother made to comfort and care for you in a particular way when you were a child — chicken noodle soup, pot pie, mashed potatoes, and so on. In that way, “comfort food” can be healthy nourishment for the united body and soul.

(Want to read more about the history of comfort food? Here’s a good summary, with citations and references.)

Then came the pandemic, and the take on “comfort food” saw a massive resurgence. (See: “2020: The Year of the Comfort Food Comeback.”) Stuck at home, afraid of death, holding close to the people in our pandemic pods, many of us had the privilege of exploring and indulging in food and cooking as a way to address the range of complex emotions — homey-ness, isolation, solace, fear, safety, and grief — all made manifest in a mad rush of banana bread, pasta, and countless stews (or maybe bags of potato chips and jars of peanut butter with spoons). (See also: “Pandemic Comfort Food Offers Too Much Solace;” John Gapper; The Financial Times, March 2021.)

In January 2022, Marlene Cimons, writing for The Washington Post, suggested that it’s time for a fresh start, away from the overload of comfort food bingeing during the pandemic (“It’s a new year. Time to stop smothering pandemic stress with comfort food.”) After digging a little deeper into the history of “comfort food,” though, the idea of “new year, new post-pandemic you,” is just one starting place, for some people.

So what does all this have to do with creativity, and how are we going to take a creative approach to comfort food?

First, to use a term I despise but will use anyway, in the interest of utility, let’s level-set on the notion of creativity. Instead of loading that term, creativity, with the responsibility to bring on sparkles and glitz, let’s consider “creativity” to be a fresh way of looking at, and solving, a problem. A new approach to resolving something unresolved is creativity at work, whether that approach ultimately succeeds or fails.

I see creativity, in its best and highest application, as a healing, healthy, restorative practice that deserves to be approached with intention. Sure, there are plenty of wonderful creative accidents, those often start with the intent of doing something else — the point being that intention, at the onset of anything, matters, even if an accident or unexpected development changes the course of what unfolds. Intention is the starting place.

This is why I believe in applying a little discipline to creative work and using a template, framework, or brief.

While there would be broad benefit in considering creative approaches to comfort food and community health, how about starting first with what’s in our direct and personal control. What if we took the creative collaboration framework and applied it to thinking about comfort food for ourselves, exploring how to bring out the nurturing, beneficial aspect of “comfort” in food. (And yes, the “collaboration” in this round will likely be only with yourself.)

Here’s a short take on what that might look like:

  • Start at the beginning: What’s the problem you want to solve, in the general area of comfort food? You don’t have to share your answer with anyone; this work is just for you, so do yourself the honor of being honest. What’s the comfort that you want, and need, from the food you’re going to prepare? What nourishes and nurtures you, in a truly comforting way?
  • What does a happy ending look like, if you solve this problem in a new and different way?
  • What’s the plotline? What’s the story between this present moment and that happy ending? If this step seems silly, then let it be silly. Give yourself a little chuckle. Have some fun with this part. (“The story is I get in my car, drive to the grocery store, can’t find a parking place at that godforsaken Union Avenue Kroger, and….”). How will you feel after you eat whatever creative, nourishing, beneficial food or meal you ultimately decide to prepare for yourself? How will you cook? Will you listen to music? How will you serve your comforting meal? It doesn’t have to be a long story, but spend a minute or two letting the film reel play out in your imagination.
  • Who’s in this happy story with you? What role do they play in getting to your happy ending?
  • [Maybe this story really is just your story (which would be so very awesome). In that case, skip looking at this story from anyone else’s perspective. Don’t let anyone steal your narrative.]
  • What external factors affect your story? What foods are in season and available? What do you have on hand? How much time do you have?
  • What are the rules, if any? What’s non-negotiable, for you?
  • Now, back to the top. Read through your scribbled notes (or rewind them in your head). Anything need amending?

Your framework will likely look different from this one. It’s yours; make it yours. Make it something useful for you to think about what you’ll do to take care of yourself by preparing food that offers the comfort you need for nurturing and nourishing yourself.

What’s next? Well, next is the creative part. The framework is exactly that; it’s a structure within which (or around which) you’ll come up with creative solutions. You could do a timed free-write of ideas that come out of doing the framework exercise. You could take words from your framework and do an online search. You could find a friend and brainstorm together. You could sit in a quiet space and meditate.

The creative part might be harder without a collaborative partner (or group), but in some ways, it might also be easier. It’s your work, your narrative, your comfort. No one else’s.

For me, the problem I was trying to solve on Sunday night was how to feel close to my daughter, who has six weeks left in her last semester of high school. I wanted to feed her, and me, with food that would feel like home and safety, but not be an anchor. To use food as a way of connecting, not challenging. To feed us something that wouldn’t be stressful, that would feel warm, be simple and approachable. But real food, that I prepared, that would be easy but not boring. Something that included a specific request from her (“that pasta that’s shaped like little shells”) and something required by me (green vegetable).

I’ll spare you the play-by-play of my full outline and skip straight to the answer: Orecchiette with four kinds of cheese, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes, paired with bright green, steamed broccoli, fresh from yesterday’s farmers market, all served on small plates and eaten off our laps, in the kitchen, as she told me about the mock trial competition.

It was nourishing and comforting, for body and soul, for us, in that moment. Reflecting back, I feel grateful for every level of privilege embedded in that food and that simple experience.

That dinner was my version of Swanson’s chicken pot pies or Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, two of the things my mother would serve on Sunday nights, while we watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom together. It was a special treat, eating on TV tables and watching TV at dinnertime. It was a treat for my mother, I realize now, because she could take a night off in the kitchen and enjoy just being with us.

Comfort food, in my childhood, was the privilege of good health, a safe home, food to eat, and a loving relationship. Comfort food, in my role as a parent, is wanting the same things — good health, a safe home, food, love, trust — for my children. I believe all parents, at least in the very beginning of their parenting journeys, want these same things for their children, whether or not they’re capable of delivering on that hope. Even the most destructive and harm-inducing parents I’ve met have wanted a better future for their children, though the parents’ own unresolved trauma and complex issues, from their own toxic histories, made for a very different reality.

I’ll leave all of this with an unfinished thought and a question:

First, if we’re really serious about tackling violence and abuse, crime and aggression, then solving for basic needs – food, shelter, clothing, and safety – might be the only place to start, the only problem worth solving. Until that kind of basic comfort becomes the accepted norm, not the privileged exception, the world and its daily struggles will be harder and harder, for all of us. The ways we’ve been trying to solve that complex problem isn’t working, so we shouldn’t expect different results until we’re willing to try different solutions.

Second, if you’re in a relatively good place, in terms of food, safety, comfort, and attachment, what’s one thing you could do today to help someone else get there? One simple thing to help heal the broken world can go a long way, in time.

2 thoughts on “The complicated problem of “comfort food.”

  1. I have begun listening to My Grandmother’s Hands on Audible, and thinking in a far different way about the historical trauma of slavery and white privileged in healing/reconciling our broken society. The role of food is both a problem and a solution equally complicated, or more accurately reflective of where we are 400 years down the road. Thank you for this piece. It is important to me, and I appreciate your ideas, and the added links for research.

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