April 6th, 2019
The “F” word is a noun: FOOD.
When I was growing up food was for comfort and community and only became a source of conflict when you refused to eat your lima beans. Now, it seems that food is the source of anguish and explanation and defense of what you do or don’t eat.
I hesitate to mention kale: what an overrated and difficult cousin of spinach. Now, spinach, there is a green worthy of study and adulation. Spinach has all of the health benefits of kale and takes about three minutes from skillet to plate versus kale which can take up to thirty million hours to soften enough to be chewed.
But enough of kale bashing: The topic of today’s paper is Comfort Food… I had thought about “Sex Toys for the Bereaved” but realized that I needed more research time.
Just what is comfort food and why do we crave it? The term ‘comfort food” was coined around 1966 in an article in the Palm Beach Post that linked the desire for solace or comfort in times of stress to the rise of obesity in America. Obesity has become a global health concern and the incidence of obesity in America has nearly tripled since 1975. It accounts for eighteen percent of deaths in Americans age 40-85. That rate is comparable to the rate of deaths attributed to smoking. Further, obesity related deaths are far less dramatic than opioid deaths but about forty thousand people die each year from obesity related diseases. (About sixty four thousand opioid deaths occur each year.) So, is comfort food all bad and should the very idea of it be abandoned?
The Oxford English Dictionary added a definition of “comfort food” in 1977. It is food that soothes or provides solace. It is generally thought to have high caloric and carbohydrate content and be simple to prepare. Comfort food is different from pleasure food, stress food or mindless eating. Those, to my mind, are the culprits in the rise of obesity. Stress food and pleasure food are guilt foods and not necessarily associated with memories of being taken care of or comforted. Mindless eating is just what it says it is. Currently, mindful eating has become the new buzz -word for how to enjoy your food without guilt or regrets. There is a restaurant near me that promises: “mindful eating” in neon just under their name. I wonder what the menu looks like. I bet there is kale in every offering.
A 2013 Harvard School of Public Health panel led by Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department, had harsh words for the food industry’s marketing practices to children and the increase in mindless eating in front of television. He said that: “ Children are being exploited, same as sweatshops. This is a natural consequence of a capitalist food supply”. A free market economic system is based solely on supply and demand. A buyer and seller enter into a transaction; it is completed when they agree on a price and there is little or no government intervention. On the other hand, while a capitalist system is also based on supply and demand, it focuses on the creation of wealth and ownership, which leads to monopolies and manipulation of markets. As an example of the manipulation of markets… 20 years ago there were about one hundred varieties of canola seeds available from about six hundred companies. Today, there are about six companies manufacturing seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. As one farmer put it: “ If you control the seed, you control the food system”.
So, Monsanto, ConAgra, Dow, Cargill, Tyson and DuPont have a concentration of power in the food industry that defines the market and limits options and competition. But that is a topic for another Noonday paper.
Back to Dr. Willett who points out that the pressure in the “ever competitive food industry” has driven researchers to “ perfect not just the preferred tastes of prepared foods, but also their packaging and advertising.”
He goes on to say: “Marketing strategies aimed at children influence a population that is not only vulnerable to such messages, but is also establishing long-lasting dietary habits.”
Then there are the changes in habits around eating. We no longer eat just at mealtimes. I don’t remember that I felt deprived if I did not have snacks mid-day once I moved from Kindergarten to first grade. And oranges and bottled water were not de rigueur at our field hockey games. We finished the match, walked up the hill from the playfield, crossed Johnstone Place, climbed the stairs to the second floor of the school and gathered around the one drinking fountain outside the gym. Snacks are now ubiquitous and often have very high sugar content. If you read the ingredients list on the back of a healthy granola bar, you will see up to five different types of sugar. Snacks represent a change in habits but not the only one.
One of the biggest changes in eating habits is eating in front of television. I am certainly guilty of that from time to time. But there is the concern about what is called a “dose response” or the more television we watch the fatter we get. It is estimated that children today spend as much as seven hours a day interacting with some kind of screen. Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor at HSPH and associate professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the founder of The Center on Media and Child Health says the real screen time culprit is: “ television time with focused attention, exposure to advertising, and mindless eating. “
While eating patterns have changed, portions have gotten larger and we have become obsessed with what not to eat instead of what to eat, the phenomenon of eating in front of television really started in the 1950’s with the development of the frozen chicken pot pie by the C.A. Swanson Company.
“Food Packaging and Shelf Life” is the official journal of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Freising, Germany. I would like to read an article from 2007 celebrating the history of the commercially produced frozen chicken pot pie. This is all in quotes: “ History, of course, often pivots on small but important objects. Some examples: paper, gunpowder, horseshoes, plague germs, and: who knew, frozen chicken pot- pie? In the annals of packaged food, the combination of chilled pastry, chicken, and vegetables represents a turning point.
In 1951 the C.A. Swanson Company introduced its first-ever frozen chicken pot- pie, which proved to be an instant success. With the new convenience food firmly established, Swanson began to look for other ways to capitalize on society’s changing habits. In 1953, a casual observation by a Swanson employee set in motion a pop culture phenomenon. It turned out that the company’s chicken pot pies were being consumed in front of the television- so why not manufacture a dinner designed specifically for watching the tube? Surplus turkeys were quickly whizzed into foil compartments, and America gained a new icon. The technological developments behind TV dinners are still significant today. For better or worse, without the frozen chicken pot pie, the Barbie of packaged food would never have been born.”
Another chicken related marketing miracle took place in the 1950s. A man named Robert Baker, a “chicken Edison” published the first chicken nugget recipe as an unpatented academic paper – who knew that a nugget was worthy of a scientific paper? As an aside, just where is the nugget located? Is it somewhere near the giblet? Anyway, Mr. Baker is credited as one of the developers of the machine that processes the whole chicken carcass into a slurry that can be pressed into shapes and deep fried. Gross beyond gross, but people, especially children keep eating them. The British chef and TV personality, Jamie Oliver took an elementary school class to see the process so they would know what they were eating. It did not faze them. They kept right on eating those nuggets.
Nuggets and commercial pot- pies and highly sugared foods are not real comfort food. Real comfort food, according to Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, is “not just about calories, but also about something social. ”
Comfort food’s power may “lie primarily in the associations it calls to mind”. People with strong, positive relationships with family and friends are likely to reach for foods that remind them of those relationships in times of sadness.
Just after their mother died, Granny’s gooey, grilled cheese sandwiches were requested almost every day by my granddaughters Zoe and Ninian . They are still high on the request list whenever all the cousins are together. Maxx, my older grandson, in a “man on the street “ interview also said that Granny’s gooey grilled cheese is at the top of the favorite comfort food list. But there is a caveat: it must be served with Campbell’s Tomato soup for dunking, especially the crispy edges.
The mention of Campbell’s soup brings us to a serious contradiction. Campbell’s soup is a mainstay in the preparation of comfort food in the Mississippi Delta, particularly at funerals. The South is often associated with comfort food and in the “fine” cookbook: “Being Dead is No Excuse” the authors, Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays explain the importance of, not just cream-of-mushroom soup but all sorts of canned items that when put together create a tasty and salt soaked “ homemade” casserole. So, does comfort food have to be made from scratch?
Scratch matters because it brings people into the kitchen. “It is the human touch that makes comfort food comforting says Donna Robertson, the author of “ Dogs’ Dinners”. “ It was not haute cuisine: it could be as simple as canned soup and cheese toast. The important thing was how it made my mother feel – It was the kindness, the feeling your Mum was absolutely on your side that made those foods special.” I have fond memories of my mother happily making “the-best-baked-custard-in-the-world” for a dear friend who was struggling to regain her health after a bout of food borne hepatitis.
Food that brings back a memory -from a farm in Iowa, a town in Scotland, a village in Thailand or a home in Singapore is comfort food. Comfort is the opposite of guilt- no conflict or shame should be a by-product of food that makes us smile, sigh with contentment or remember.
There is another important factor to comfort food; it is twice blessed. When you cook for someone else you are performing an act of altruism and that causes the release of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that transmit messages in your nervous system. Serotonin levels are associated with happiness and contentment. Julie Ohana, a licensed clinical social worker and culinary art therapist told the Huff Post: “In many cultures, in many countries, food really is an expression of love, and it is actually beautiful because it is something we all relate to.”
Another culinary arts therapist, I’ll explain the term in just a minute, Ayelet Barak Nahum with a PhD from the Bob Chapell School of Social work at Tel Aviv University concurs and expands the belief: “Cooking for others creates and affirms a primary bond. It can therefore be a very fulfilling and meaningful deed. It can provide a means for social acceptance and create a feeling of belonging to a community. “
Natalie Rogers, daughter of the 20th century psychologist, Carl Rogers who developed “patient-centered therapy” expanded on her father’s approach which focuses on the positive in people. She created “expressive arts therapy”. It takes many forms from gardening to dance to culinary arts. Culinary arts therapy teaches people to express themselves through new skills learned in the kitchen and share the results of their efforts. Someday, culinary arts therapy may have the same legitimacy as music therapy. It is a growing field. Food that comforts benefits both the giver and the receiver of the mashed potatoes, or fried chicken or meatloaf or baked custard or whatever is offered with love.
Food: Comfort or Conflict? I say comfort and celebration and acceptance of acts of kindness.