I have never been comfortable with the term “comfort food.” As an aspiring chef, I thought there was something unglamorous or too workaday about the term. I wanted to soar with the eagles, not migrate with the flock. As a working chef, however, I’ve come to feel differently. I find myself striving to make food that is not only tasty but that also has a deep emotional connection — food to be felt beyond the stomach. As Hominy Grill nears its 10th year, I no longer reject the label but am grateful that what I do represents comfort to people.
Food is so basic to our existence, yet we have such a complicated relationship with it in 21st century America. It’s a metaphor, symbol, political tool — sometimes it seems to represent everything except comfort. It’s a relief to me that someone can sit down in my restaurant and have an uncomplicated relationship with a plate of fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
As Southerners, we’ve always known what to call comfort food — we use its more poetic name — soul food. Widespread use elsewhere came later. The term was corporatized in the late ’80s, at a time when the American food scene was beginning to heat up: American regional cuisine was being rediscovered. Classic homestyle dishes that owed allegiance to no particular region began to turn up on restaurant menus. This was paralleled by the rise of the celebrity chef, creating ever taller and ever-more dazzling dishes that combined several continents on one plate. After getting dolled up and scaling these culinary heights on Saturday night, many Americans wanted to eat something on Tuesday night that satisfied their psyches as well as their stomachs. Comfort food as a category came into being.
One of the strangest features of the modern comfort food phenomenon, however, has to do with who is in the kitchen cooking it. Despite Martha and Williams-Sonoma, despite the popularity of the Food Network, despite $10,000 stoves in home kitchens, home cooking is by and large dead. During the last century, food was frozen or tinned for the mass market, microwaved and instant-ized, right up to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell: why cook? Who needs to cook? Who has time? Fresh food in supermarkets now consists of an aisle of produce and another of meat; the contents of the remaining ten plus aisles are cans, boxes, and pouches that need little more than heating up. Our grandmothers were “liberated” from the kitchen and by extension from the responsibility to pass on the knowledge to our mothers. As a result, few in my generation even know where to start. Cooking is seen as a chore rather than a gift. Through it all, however, we are left with a longing for something or someone to feed us.
Back home from a long day at the restaurant, I’m no more inclined than any other busy professional or harried parent to prepare a full meal, comforting or otherwise. But one thing leads to another, and I find myself in the kitchen, chopping, sautéing, and tasting. Sitting down with my wife and daughter to eat our meal: in the whole world, is there anything more comforting than this?