The Flavors of Home: The Art of Comfort Food

by Dwight Furrow

6a019b00fffe15970b01b7c76df05d970b-150wiWhen we eat, if we pay attention at all, we focus on the pleasures of flavor and texture. But some meals have a larger significance that provokes memory and imagination. So it is with comfort food–the filling, uncomplicated, soft, and digestible comestibles that haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home.

Apple pie, ice cream, chocolate cake, macaroni and cheese, chicken soup-their smell and taste can unfetter a flood of memories because our brains are wired to associate good feelings with specific flavors and aromas, especially when the flavors are fat, salt and sugar. In the face of such powerful stimuli, we succumb helplessly to the endorphin cascade. The foods of home have such a grip on us that we go to a great deal of trouble to bring our food with us when we travel. The spread of various foodstuffs throughout the world was made possible by armies, both military and migrant, determined to carry the taste of home with them. A visit to any ethnic market in a major city reveals the importance of these taste memories to our sense of well-being.

Home cooking has this significance because meals are as much about relationships as they are about food. Unlike other animals, we do not eat when food is available. We dine at particular times, in particular ways, and with particular table mates. Families interact around the kitchen table and are defined by the small daily rituals of gathering, preparing, and consuming food. Meals bring families together physically and emotionally and the tastes and smells become associated with the achievement of social solace and acceptance. “Homeyness”, for want of a more elegant word, may be the most powerful and persistent meaning that attaches to food. Thus, the simplistic claim that food lacks meaning is obviously false. Mom's apple pie is as meaningful as anything in life for some of us.

But does comfort food have the kind of meaning that works of art have?

Do specific comfort foods represent home in the same sense that the Mona Lisa represents a woman with an enigmatic smile? Many philosophers argue that meanings associated with food are quite different from meanings associated with art. According to this skeptical argument, mom's apple pie means “homeyness” because it was made by mom, with love and care, and it was eaten on many occasions when the family was together, bonds were reinforced, and family rituals enacted. But these family bonds are facts external to the pie. They give mom's apple pie meaning but they are not “in the pie” in the way that flavor and texture are “in the pie”. The taste of the pie itself does not confer these meanings; the story of one's family and home life, the context, confers the meaning. Without knowing the context, one could not “read off” the pie, the meanings relevant to home and family. Taste and smell trigger feelings and thoughts of home, but those tastes and smells have meaning, not because they are intrinsically connected to homes, but because there is a history that associates them with a particular home. The taste of warm apple, cinnamon, and baked, buttery crust does not mean “home” in the way that, for instance, the swirling brush strokes and the placement of characters in Munch's The Scream mean alienation.

6a019b00fffe15970b01b8d0f7907c970c-150wiThose swirling brush strokes and the placement of characters are internal to the painting; but only taste and flavor are internal to the apple pie, not the meanings that indicate “homeyness”. The pie has significance because it was served at home; not because there is something meaningful about its taste and smell. So the aesthetic properties of the pie are irrelevant to its meaning as comfort food.

This skeptical argument is right about some cases. I once had a Hawaiian acquaintance who professed a love for poi–the Hawaiian staple made from fermented taro root that gives the taste of library paste a bad name–because it reminded him so powerfully of home. Perhaps, any flavor flavor profile could trigger thoughts of home if it is associated with the people and rituals of one's home, which suggests that flavor is not essential to meaning. But this is not always the case and I doubt that it is typically the case.

I will use my own experience as an example. While I recognize that data is not the plural of anecdote, my aim in using this example is not so much to prove my point but to encourage readers to think about whether their experience resonates with mine. In my home, the dish that has always signified “homeyness” is macaroni and cheese made from a recipe originally gleaned from an old Fanny Farmer cookbook, although I have modified and refined it over many years. This is not a special occasion dish; no charged emotional episodes heighten its significance. It is just a supper dish. Yet, when it is on the menu, it is met by much anticipation, consumed with glee, and followed with much remonstration about whether I got it right or not this time. I have it on good authority–namely my wife and son–that the meaning of this dish is utterly dependent on its aesthetic properties. The precise flavor and textural characteristics explain why this dish has acquired its symbolic significance for us. But aside from this expert testimony, there is good evidence that it is flavor and texture that matter. Many other dishes I have made under similar circumstances do not acquire this significance, and I have made other versions of macaroni and cheese, with different flavors and textures characteristics, that are met with much less enthusiasm. There is something particular to this flavor and texture profile that explains its “homeyness”. Thus, it is apparent that the aesthetic properties–flavor and texture–are generating meaning, despite the skeptical argument articulated above.

What is it about this dish that symbolizes “home”? As I noted above, there are generic features of comfort food that conventionally signify comfort. The macaroni is soft and, with the cheese, forms a homogeneous mass which indicates security because there is nothing fussy, challenging, or complicated about it. The fat, protein, and bulky carbs are stick-to-the-ribs filling indicating nourishment, and the fat and saltiness of the cheese give plenty of stimulation to the pleasure centers of the brain. The addition of apple, an unusual ingredient in macaroni and cheese, contributes sweetness which conventionally signifies “the good life”. These qualities tend to mean “comfort food” which has obvious connotations to the home. They are conventional symbols much like a dove that represents peace or a star that represents hope in a painting.

The flavor and texture profile of this dish came together over many years and is the result of an intention to satisfy the preferences of my family. Importantly, the care with which a dish is conceived and executed is indicated by the aesthetic features internal to the dish–especially the precision of the execution and the balance of flavors and textures. These features can be tasted. Yet they are not merely flavors–they have meaning because they lend themselves to interpretation. They mean “homeyness” because they highlight, exemplify, the care and attention characteristic of home cooks. Of course, precision of execution and fineness of conception do not always indicate the kind of care associated with the home. A well-trained restaurant chef can conceive and execute a dish while being utterly indifferent to diners. But in the context of home cooking, with limited time, money, and other factors placing constraints on a commitment to cooking, fineness of conception and precision of execution are plausibly interpreted as signifying a commitment to the quality of home life. Love and care are not “in the dish” in the way flavor and texture are “in the dish”. But they are contextual features that help interpret precision of execution and fineness of conception, which are in the dish, as indicators of the love and care associated with the home. Thus, precision of execution and fineness of conception are symbols of love and care in this context.

The third, and perhaps most important reason for thinking the flavor and texture profile of this dish means “homeyness” is that they represent a shared sensibility. All members of my immediate family find this particular dish extraordinarily satisfying. The dish not only refers to this shared sensibility but exemplifies it, represents it, and highlights it. The flavors display our shared sensibility just as the swirling brush strokes and juxtapositions of characters in The Scream not only indicate alienation but demonstrate it.

This notion of a shared sensibility is important enough to dwell on for a moment. Maria Lugones in her widely reprinted essay “'Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception'” writes that there are four ways of being at ease in a “world”. You can be at ease in a “world” because you are a fluent speaker of the language or agree with the norms that operate in that “world”. In addition, you can be at ease in a “world” if you are bonded by love to other members of that world, or share a history with them. But in her account of why she is incapable of being playful in certain “worlds” she enters, she leaves out an important dimension of being at ease or “at home”. That dimension is a shared sensibility, shared “at easeness” with the physicality of what surrounds us. Nothing indicates “homeyness” more than the familiarity of surfaces–the precise way the wind nips at the collar while doing chores in the late afternoon or the hand traces the contours of a porch railing, the wisdom of feet navigating without inhibition through a darkened basement, or perhaps most saliently the taste and smells of a familiar kitchen. Comfort food operates as a kind of synecdoche symbolizing the fullness of familiar sensations that constitute our dwelling in a particular place and with the people with whom we share a life. But this is precisely what (some) art does. It puts us in touch with the elements of sensation, makes us aware of how these elements can be distinguished, separated, combined and re-combined to form the possible worlds that we inhabit.

The home is one small part of that larger world which artists are drawn to explore. But it is a part that is of a distinctly human scale which the edible arts are (uniquely?) well-equipped to explore. I don't mean to suggest that all comfort foods that signify “homeyness” are works of art–the goals of the home cook are typically different from those of an artist. But this argument does suggest that some of the meanings that attach to food have the kind of meaning we associate with art, and that the differences between edible arts and fine arts are practical, not theoretical.

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food visit Edible Arts.

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