Being a foodie, I have to admit that I enjoy excellent food and certainly can tend to overindulge if I am stressed or tempted. But part of enjoying a meal or a particular comfort food is the power of the association that goes with that delectable delight.
My dad has always said with a smile that he married my mom because of her chocolate mayonnaise cake (you might cringe, but it is amazing). I was blown away by getting treated to fantastic Louisiana restaurants in the early days of dating my husband, in pre-children times when our incomes allowed luxuries of a multi-course meal and a bottle of wine. My husband starts salivating on our way down the road to New Orleans to see his family, since frequently my mother-in-law will notify him well in advance of which of his many comfort foods are on the menu upon our arrival.
Now, while I love his mom’s cooking, I don’t have the same passion for seafood that he developed over the years. Still, I do have to smile when we are greeted with more pounds of boiled crawfish than should be consumed by any human, because of one of my earliest memories from almost 30 years ago. We met his sister and brother-in-law at a local restaurant and they ordered boiled crawfish. My sister-in-law tried to demonstrate to me the proper way to peel the crawfish, suck the head and eat said crawfish, as I watched in a state of horror. During her demonstration, she put the remnants of the crawfish shell with head intact over her fingertips as a joke and animated them with her hand motions. It was hilarious in hindsight, but alas, did not bring me comfort at the time. Somehow, I’ve never quite been able to shake that image and tend to eat a few ounces of crawfish compared to the pounds my husband and sons can put away. Even so, it gives me joy to see how happy the crawfish boil tradition brings to my husband and children.
I stick mostly with the corn, potatoes and sausage from the boil and look forward to my mother-in-law’s shrimp stew, crawfish etouffee and red beans and rice. Not to mention the fine bottle of port with chocolate cake. While my husband’s comfort foods tend to be seafood and savory, my memories of home cooking and comfort foods tend to be of my mom’s baked goods — from chocolate mayonnaise cake to her chocolate pudding cake to her pecan pies and Christmas cookies. For good or bad, my sweet tooth developed early, and I have inherited that desire to bake for my kids as a means of showing love and bringing comfort during times of stress. Wrestling season sometimes forces me to channel this baking to healthier options, but I still get asked to bake when big tournaments come and go.
Sometimes traveling far away from home leads to an intense yearning for familiar comfort foods. When I studied abroad in India in college, I loved the spicy and authentic foods that we had the pleasure of eating but still had to adjust to the cultural differences in what types of foods were served when. When our student group from Davidson College first arrived, I remember thinking that they were serving “dinner-type” foods for breakfast (i.e. warm, fried foods that included meats and/or vegetables) such as dosas or parathas. My Americanized brain had a hard time grasping eating these types of meals for breakfast, but eventually I gained an appreciation for these foods, despite the fact that they were “out of my comfort zone.” In addition, the longer I was gone from the States, ironically the more I missed the stereotypical American fare of burgers and pizza, which I was not that dedicated to while in the States. I remember toward the end of my time in India, I became fixated on getting some American food and went with my student peers to a Pizza Hut in New Delhi. I was ecstatic to get a piece of pizza. In hindsight, I know the pizza was truthfully not that good, but the memory of home overpowered the actual quality of what we were eating.
Overall, I think that the tastes of our childhood and past experiences create lifelong yearnings for these foods again as a way of reconnecting with our families, our experiences and our world. Food, like music, is diverse and creates complex road maps to our past emotions and relationships. While we all need food to physically survive, food also is an inherently social and cultural phenomena that helps tie us all together. So, the next time you take a bite of that favorite food of yours, think about who you most want to share it with, and why. And if you have a burning desire for that chocolate mayonnaise cake recipe, feel free to reach out!