Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Comfort food is associated with childhood and home-cooking. For me, it includes Portuguese and Mediterranean dishes -- the food that permeated my childhood.

Comfort foods engage many sense receptors: our taste buds, our sense of smell, our sense of texture, how a food feels on our tongue and fingers, our visual sensibilities, even our hearing. Consider: snap, crackle, and pop.

It's moist. It's got enough salt/seasoning, and fat to make you feel satisfied after eating one serving, though we may want to go back for seconds if we ate quickly, and didn't give our bodies time to feel a natural sense of fullness.

The Portuguese used to take three hours off from work -- 12-3 pm -- to eat the main meal. Perhaps in some places, they still do. To my dad, eating standing up was akin to sacrilege. [The spiritual life of food is a post for another day.]

Some examples of my comfort foods:
Steaming chicken soup (NEVER low sodium);
Mom's salad made with vegetables from her garden, including crunchy cucumbers, hand-torn lettuce, and seasoned by hand with oil, red vinegar, salt, and pepper (Mom literally coats the ingredients by hand);
european-style french fries, slightly soggy and salty;
caldeirada, a slightly spicy seafood stew similar to zuppa di pesci or bouillebaise;
chicken legs cooked in almost any form;
and fresh bread with a crisp crust and moist insides.

I used to scoop out, loosely ball up, and eat the bread’s guts like it was candy. When my mom and dad discovered hollow loaves of bread, they would teasingly demand we search the house for a rat.

Did you notice my pattern? I want texture and salt. If you took salt away from me, I would collapse (probably literally because I have low blood pressure). Salt is my family entitlement. It’s what I happily ate as a child.

Not surprisingly, our minds respond positively to happy memories, and memories from childhood are the most powerful. Sensual memories from childhood are deeply embedded in the most primitive parts of our brain. They’re the last memories to go.

When we get what we want, we become happy, however temporarily. On a rotten day, a sensual, nostalgic meal gives you a slice of heaven. Eat the slice. Life really is that simple.

[See: scene when The Critic first tastes ratatouille in eponymous Disney movie for a fabulous illustration of the power of nostalgia and family-friendly sensuality.]

Next UP: Easy Food Explained

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