By David Hammond
People speak of it fondly, and chefs say they serve it, but what, exactly, is “comfort food”?
The concept of comfort food is uncertain. It varies by geographic location, ethnic heritage and generation. The cherished comfort food of an Eisenhower-era Midwesterner is not going to be the same as the comfort food of an Eastern-European millennial. Some believe comfort food must be something one ate when young, foods that warm the heart with thoughts of family and home. Not surprisingly, many of our comfort foods seem to have been prepared, at least the first time, by our mothers or grandmothers.
Some commonly cited comfort foods—like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and noodle casserole—are all relatively high in fat and carbs, with soft texture and mild seasoning. Are these attributes common to all comfort food?
Recently, I experienced what seemed a classic comfort food: the Hot Brown at the Brown Hotel in Louisville. The Hot Brown consists of buttered toast points, turkey breast, tomatoes and bacon, dappled with Mornay sauce. One bite and I immediately thought “comfort food.” This dish had everything that, by some definitions, is required by comfort food: delicious fat (bacon, Mornay sauce) and carbs (toast points), and a texture that’s consistently soft, almost mushy, but in a good way. When food is soft, you can eat it without thinking a lot; this is not always a good thing, but comfort food almost always permits you to put your brain on pause. If there was any seasoning in the Hot Brown, aside from salt and pepper, it was undetectable.
This was, however, the first time I’d had a Hot Brown, so it might not even qualify as “my” comfort food because, according to some, comfort food by definition is something we ate when we were kids.
Erick Williams is the chef/pitmaster of County Barbeque (1352 West Taylor, (312)929-2528), where he serves fantastic Kansas City burnt ends and other pan-regional barbeque selections including St. Louis spare ribs and Chicago tips. Williams told us he learned how to cook ‘cue from his uncle. He believes comfort food “generally has a bit of nostalgia wrapped around it. It’s food that takes you to a place. It usually brings back great memories and moments. It should also be something that’s a great leftover.”
The point about comfort food being a “great leftover” is not one I’d heard before. Many traditional comfort foods—macaroni and cheese, etc.—do, indeed, reheat well, with very little degradation in texture and taste. With leftovers, in fact, there may even be some enhancement as flavors marry while sitting in the refrigerator.
So what does Williams consider his personal comfort food?
“Comfort food, for me, is definitely fried chicken and beef stew. At County Barbecue, we celebrate fried chicken on Mondays. I have made stew two or three times for the family meals at mk,” he says.
Williams’ mother made beef stew on cold days when he was growing up. “After playing football with friends, I would come in late to the aroma of her beef stew,” he says. “The entire house would be filled with the smell of the rich broth and herbs. I would shower and sit in the kitchen – alone – savoring each bite. I’d crumble her cornbread over it. That’s a very warm memory for me.”
Comfort food, according to Williams, has a lot in common with soul food. “Both are made from scratch,” he says. “It’s food offered as a gift. It’s food that captivates. It’s not fast food. If you’re eating it in the car, you have to pull over for a second. Maybe even turn down the radio because you want to be alone with your food.”
Williams’ comfort food is served warm. Could “warmth” also be one of the distinguishing criteria of comfort food?
Would it be possible to have comfort food that’s served cold, like an ice cream bar or sorbet? Or a salad?
In the following months, I’ll be talking to Chicago chefs and figuring out just what comfort food means to them. Because Chicago is rich in ethnic diversity, I’m hoping to see if, despite predictable differences, there might be common features that will enable us to develop a cross-cultural understanding of what, exactly, comfort food is.
Erick Williams’ Mother’s Recipe for Beef Stew
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours
- 3 lbs boneless chuck roast, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 9 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp. freshly ground pepper
- 4 beef steak tomatoes cut in ½ inch chunks
- 2 yellow onions, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 2 cups flour
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup red wine
- 3 cups beef broth
- 4 carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch slices
- 4 cups of corn
- 1/2 pound blanched American green beans
- 2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch slices
- 3 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut in eighths
- fresh parsley to garnish (optional)
- In a heavy-bottomed pot, sweat onions in 3 tbsp. vegetable oil over medium heat; after 5 minutes, add garlic and cook until fragrant.
- Add the carrots and celery and cook for 5 minutes: then remove the vegetables and reserve; clean pot and add the remaining oil.
- Season beef with salt and pepper and dredge beef in flour; brown in batches in a single layer; once browned, remove beef with a slotted spoon and allow to cool on a cookie tray; reserve first batch and add the next batch, continue the process until all of the meat is browned
- Pour off the oil and add red wine, scraping any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan; reduce wine by one-fourth
- Add beef, broth, and potatoes and bring back to a gentle simmer, then cover and cook on very low for about 1 hour.
- Add remaining vegetables and simmer covered for another 15 minutes or until the meat and vegetables are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Turn off heat and let sit for 15 minutes before serving. Garnish with the fresh parsley (optional).