The gastronomic landscape can be especially hard to maneuver. Outsiders unfamiliar with the customs run the risk of getting lost in a fast food jungle, accidently mistaking a KFC or Burger King for a place to eat food. There will be many foreign concepts, like iced coffee that comes in a 1 liter size, bagels (round bread that is boiled before it’s baked), or comfort food.
The term comfort food is unique to America, and it first came into common usage in the 1970s. So what does ‘comfort’ mean when applied to food? It certainly refers to a certain warm feeling that comes from eating from a shared social tradition. After all, no sense is more powerful in regards to memory recall than smell. And smell, along with taste, defines our eating experience. Like when it only takes one bite of bacalao a la abuela to carry you to the kitchen of your grandmother, I only need a single fried okra to transport me to the summer evenings and heavy heat of Alabama.
Okra, you ask? Don’t worry—there are plenty of Americans who don’t know what it is either. But for me, and an entire region of the US, it is the epitome of comfort food. It is a green vegetable that takes the form of green pods that contain white, ball-shaped seeds. You can eat it raw, sautéed, used in stews (like gumbo of Louisiana’s Cajun-Creole cuisine), or fried, which is most common. While there are tomes of literature on the merits of a cornmeal versus flour batter, the consensus is in: fried okra is an emblem of the American South, one food that grandmothers made and that housewives today continue to fry up for their loved ones.
But perhaps comfort food must do more than transport you to a happy time in your past. After all, that time you drank too much kalimotxo that comes rushing back whenever you smell the stuff hardly qualifies. Another essential element of comfort food is that it be filling. For this function we have another quintessential dish—grits. Breakfast, with sausage and eggs. Lunch. Dinner, with steak. Fine restaurants, with shrimp and a thick brown sauce. Gas stations, not recommended. They’re everywhere. Oh. You have no idea what they are, either?
Grits are just coarsely ground corn. They can be white or yellow, and they are prepared by boiling until tender. If you know Italian polenta, you have an idea of grits. Three-quarters of grits sold in the United States are sold in the South. And there as many preparations as people that consume them. At their most simple, one adds nothing more than salta nd water. They are delicious, however, prepared with chicken broth, then finished with butter and a handful of cheese. They are the perfect vessel/canvas for any liquid or saucy dish. They are to Southerners what bread is to someone from here. They are a permanent fixture in our life and a sure way to fill a stomach hungry for food and longing for home.
And then, a final and perhaps most important aspect of “comfort food”. It must taste absolutely amazing. Take, for example, a Southern comfort food par excellence: pimento cheese. At its most basic, it is grated cheddar cheese and diced roasted red pepper, blended with mayonnaise, salt, and pepper. But the variations are endless… I always add cream cheese. It’s most typically served on soft white sandwich bread, but is also often perched on crackers or celery sticks.
So, if you ever find yourself in the strange land where a pod vegetable and cheese mixed with mayonnaise (and more cheese) are local delicacies, just get two helpings and think back on the Alabama grandmother you never had.