December 4, 2014

Just What Is Comfort Food Anyway?

By: Ryan Hodros, Culinary Arts Student

Everybody is familiar with the idea of comfort food.  It’s that stuff you eat because it makes you feel all warm and cozy inside.  It might help the stress melt away after a hard day, or brings fond memories flooding back, or just make you feel good for a way you don’t analyze too much, because why ruin it?  Comfort food is one of those mildly intangible mysteries that a lot of people prefer not unraveling.

“So why write an article about it, you jerk?”  Don’t worry gentle reader, I’m not going to try to figure out why comfort food is what it is—not only because I don’t want to ruin the fun, but because I just don’t know.  Instead, I’m going to discuss an often unexplored facet of comfort food that I find just as exciting, which is creating new comfort foods for yourself.

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The idea for this article first took root a week or so ago when I was attending a press opening for the new D Bar in Denver.  Chef Keegan Gerhard, whose desserts are unparalleled excellence, also has a wonderful savory menu.  One of the items on that menu was bacon mac and cheese, which surprised me.  In a “fancy-schmancy restaurant,” bacon mac seemed oddly out of place next to seared scallops and mushroom tarts.  To top it off (literally and figuratively), the bacon mac had a topping of panko and Cheezits of all things.

I was wearing my critic’s hat that day, and so was expecting to write notes like “juvenile,” “lowbrow” or even, dare I say it:  “unfit for a fine dining establishment.”  But when I ate that bacon mac, I was filled with the kind of contented happiness you can only get from comfort food.  I realized as I finished the plate that Chef Gerhard had trapped me, and I couldn’t help but give this dish a solid review.

The thing is, my mom never really made bacon mac when I was a kid, and she certainly didn’t top it off with Cheezits.  So what gives?  Well, it turns out that my wife sometimes tops her mac and cheese with pulverized cheesy fish (which are basically the same thing).  And while I didn’t start eating her cooking until I was in my mid-20’s, that had become a comfort food of mine.

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This idea was confirmed this past week when I visited Okole-Maluna Hawaiian Grill in Windsor this past week.  I didn’t realize it until now, but Hawaiian cuisine is now part of my comfort food.  As I munched on spam musubi and Loco Moco (which is remarkably authentic for Colorado), I could almost feel the tropical breeze and coconut suntan lotion in the air.  It was a lovely experience, and I plan to go back despite the long drive.

So what’s the point?  Well, it turns out that “comfort food” isn’t just stuff your mom and dad made for you when you were a kid.  It turns out, you can keep adding to your list of comfort foods throughout your entire life simply by trying new things and attaching fun, comfortable, or pleasant memories to them.

This is especially poignant coming off of Thanksgiving and moving into Christmas (which might as well be called “Comfort Foods Month”) when we’re surrounded by the turkeys, stuffings, pies, and cookies of our childhoods.  I’m not saying to bust out the Beijing Roast Duck to replace the traditional ham for the holidays, but putting something new side-by-side with the old is a great way to experiment with what might be the new dish you turn to when you’ve had a rough day.

I’m going to try to add duck to our Christmas menu, but my family is somewhat resistant to changes in tradition (most of which go back to the old country).  But we’ll see.  If you have new foods you’d like to try this holiday season, tweet or email them to me.  I’d like to do a rundown of what new traditions people are trying to build, or what “outside the norm” traditions people already have in place.  I think it’d be fun to show that the holidays (and comfort foods) aren’t just what you see on TV and in greeting cards!

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