Thu07242014

Comfort food: No Shoes, Please

Everybody has some version of it – an idiosyncratic, precise recipe from your grandmother or a plebeian grocery store munchy. We can all name something edible that really hits the spot in our emotional bellies. I, for example, often turn to potato chips, while my mother relies on numerous cups of hot water. That probably says something meaningful about us as a pair, but my main point is that food (and drink) can replenish us in more ways than one.

The classic comfort food for many is chocolate – and I get it – but being more a salt and grease person myself, sugar isn’t really my thing. The exception to that rule would be ice cream, the only dessert I truly love and the only one that holds some sway over my emotions. If I’m stressed, a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s Pistachio Pistachio can be a kind of sweet solace trickling down my throat. I know that sugar as a mood enhancer is an illusion at best and at worst a crutch that creates more problems than it solves. But in a pinch, it can work miracles.

For me, a book title like “Joy of Cooking” sounds oxymoronic, but I know what the term “comfort food” means. As a healing elixir, as a stimulant for pleasure and conviviality, as an emblem of a bountiful life – food is rich, enticing and potent. That’s why I’m surprised to discover that it has less pull on me as I age, a process which seems to go hand in hand with the fact that I can’t tolerate as much of anything – grease, salt, sugar, you name it – as I used to.

Nowadays, if I had to choose, I’d rather sleep than eat, and when I go for those chips or that ice cream, it really does feel like I’m consuming empty calories – not nutritionally empty, though that’s true enough, but emotionally empty as well. Plus, I come out on the physical short end of the stick – a pudgy middle or a canker sore – much more quickly to boot.

I still enjoy eating. But the experience is much more emotionally rewarding to me when I’m actually hungry. There’s something about identifying a true need, satisfying it easily and then getting immediate relief that makes life itself seem like a pretty uncomplicated exercise.

The relative ease of life, by the way, is a new concept for me; I’ve been characterizing it in completely opposite terms for the last, oh, let’s say, 50 years. But eating only when hungry is straightforward and clear. Meet your needs, period. Keep calm and carry on. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Maybe that’s the way life should have been for me all along. Maybe all the “have to’s” – have to have, have to do, have to be – weren’t requirements that needed fulfilling after all. Maybe life is meant to be simple and stress-free, managed by relaxed effort. And maybe you can be nourished by something as undemanding and trouble-free as a cup of plain old hot water. My mother may have had it right all along.

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