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The food we go to when it’s not so bright out

What makes comfort food so dang good?

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For me, it’s buttered noodles. It could be penne, rigatoni, spaghetti, farfalle — whatever’s sitting in my cupboard. And then garlic, roasted in butter, maybe Parmesan if I have some laying around in the fridge. It was probably one of the first meals I ever made myself, and it’s always there for me. 

My mom would make it when she needed a quick meal, or when I was young and too picky to enjoy whatever else was on the plate that night. She knew it was always a winner. It’s simple, carby, and hits my two favorite flavors: butter and garlic. That’s my comfort food.

There’s also the kind of disgusting-sounding combination of rice cakes with cream cheese, a snack that they used to serve at my preschool. Actually, even just the smell of onions cooking over the stove is soothing, reminding me of the days when the smell of my parents cooking dinner was detectable before I even walked inside.

I find myself drawn to these dishes when I’ve had a hard day, or I’m just feeling lonely. The way they wrap me up and comfort me doesn’t seem to just be because they taste good — the feeling is distinct from simply a good meal. So what’s so special about these foods?

Comfort food, oftentimes, is carby or starchy, maybe even heavy on the dairy — breads, pastas, ice cream, and mac and cheese are all pretty standard places where people go when it’s gloomy. Oftentimes people find relief in these foods when they’re stressed or upset, and it seems to calm them down. 

“Wheat has an affinity for the endocannabinoid receptors in our brains, which are sort of the pleasure centers,” Ann Anagnost, a UW professor who teaches ANTH 361, Anthropology of Food, said. “I think that's one of the reasons why we feel this, actually, physiological sense of comfort.”

The endocannabinoid receptors are also the parts in our brain that, you guessed it, cannabis binds to. This could be a factor in the feeling of sedation that this food gives us.

There is also research that points to a correlation between food that’s high in carbohydrates and increased serotonin production, which is a neurotransmitter that is related to a relaxed mood. Carbohydrates supply us with tryptophan, which is the amino acid that is the precursor for serotonin. There’s also the simple somnolent power of eating a satiating meal in general, which can trigger our parasympathetic nervous system. The opposite of the activated, fight or flight system, it’s nicknamed the “rest and digest” system, and you get tired because your body is dedicating most of its energy to moving your food through your body. This is where we get the idea of a food coma from — a coping mechanism that’s pretty useful if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

But it’s not always the case that our comfort foods are these inherently rewarding sugary, fatty foods. When I asked my mom what her comfort food was, for example, she said it was fruit. She said that she remembers her dad eating a piece of fruit every night after dinner, and engaging in that ritual these days makes her feel connected to him. So obviously, there’s an emotional aspect to this.

“One of the food memories that I share with my students is when I went away to college and I came home for the first time,” Anagnost said. “I was talking to my mom and my dad sort of slipped up behind her and poked his head around her shoulder — and he was a very reserved man who never expresses emotions very directly. And he sort of whispered to me, 'I made rice pudding.’ I didn't realize, in retrospect, that that was his way of expressing his love for me and communicating to me that he missed me and he was really glad that I had come home.”

She then recalled when she tried a rice and cinnamon gelato flavor in Italy, much later in life, it whooshed her back to that memory.

“Food can have that — this really powerful sort of associative emotional intensity, that food journey encoded for us,” she said. 

In fact, a study was conducted that speaks to this idea of the emotionality of certain foods. First, a note on attachment theory, which claims that we all have an attachment style that is based on our young relationships with our primary caregivers which tends to echo into our adult relationship patterns. You’re either securely attached — you trusted your caregiver, felt safe depending on them, but weren’t overly clingy — or you’re some form of insecurely attached, and feel anxious depending on people or trusting them. 

In this study, they had subjects read an essay that made them feel like their sense of belonging was being threatened. Afterward, they gave them potato chips, a classic comfort food. Surprisingly, the group of participants that were identified as securely attached preferred the taste of the comfort food compared to those who were insecurely attached. A follow-up found that in their daily lives, securely attached individuals tend to turn more to comfort food when experiencing isolation.

This study seems to be saying that emotional associations with food actually are powerful enough to buoy the feelings of loneliness. That even when we cook ourselves dinner for one, maybe we’re still reaching out in a social way to our loved ones. Food seems to be a powerful source of connection even when there’s no one to share it with.

If you don’t feel like you have a good comfort food you can rely on, check out these places in Seattle (loved one across the table required) where you can start making some good associations that’ll boost you later when things aren’t looking so bright. 

Arepa Venezuelan Kitchen

Nestled next to the Grand Illusion Theater off 50th and the Ave is a Venezuelan restaurant that serves thick, tortilla-like arepas filled with beans, ground beef, plantains, avocado, and plenty of other options.

I would like to take a moment to thank maize for leading the charge here. Wheat, who? Bread has nothing on the texture and bite of a fluffy, pancake-like arepa. Nothing on the Ave makes me feel as full on $9 as this place does, and I always walk out needing a nap in the best way.

Biscuit Bitch

Sometimes you have to wait in line for Biscuit Bitch. Sometimes, you have to wait in line in the rain. Sometimes you’re worried about finding one of the few seats and also feel somewhat berated by the servers who I think are specifically trained to be rough around the edges. No matter what, it’s always worth it. Biscuit Bitch is the carby, southern comfort food that Seattle needs in the winter. Can’t I just go to Morsel? Please. There’s nothing wrong with Morsel’s biscuits, but the variety and just the plain sass of the cuisine at Biscuit Bitch is unmatched. This isn’t just biscuits and gravy — you can add grits, jalapeños, and hot links. It’s quintessential, carby comfort food.

Xi’an Noodles

This spot is nestled high up on the Ave and 52nd, but don’t let its casual exterior fool you. Xi’an Noodles might be the most critically recognized spot on the Ave, known for its hand-pulled biang biang noodles. If you’re as much of a sucker for chili oil as I am, this is the place for you. I always go for the “tingly beef” noodles, a huge plate full of wide, flat Chinese noodles bathed in chili oil and tender pulled beef. In the winter, the carbs make you feel cozy and the chili warms you up (also will probably unclog that pesky stuffy nose you’ve had for weeks).

Reach Pacific Wave co-editor Charlotte Houston at pacificwave@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @lilgarlicclove.

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