Perils of Finding Solace in Food

When my concerns are too personal and too emotional to share with those closest to me—even with myself—I tend to turn my thoughts to food. It’s no mistake that the word “comfort” is so often associated with food. Whether a recipe delivers what one considers “comfort food” or yields a delightfully spicy concoction that forces a person’s attention on his taste buds, food gives comfort. It offers at least temporary respite from unsettling matters that nag and worry and cause distress. Food is, indeed, a comfort.

This morning, as I consider foods that might distract me from troubling matters, I recall a conversation I had with my wife about a simple meal that, in my mind, defines comfort food. The ingredients, if I remember it correctly, consist of only a can of salmon, some flour, a little milk, and perhaps some salt. The flour and milk are mixed thoroughly in a pan and the salmon is added after the milk and flour form a moderately thick gravy. A little salt and the deal is done. The salmon is served over hot white rice. I top my serving with a generous sprinkling of white pepper and some Tabasco sauce. Either peas or green beans on the side and the meal is done. That meal soothes me when I’ve had a hard day.

Some other comfort foods, more involved than creamed salmon, include gumbo, jambalaya, Mexican rice, and pork congee. It occurs to me that every one of those includes rice. That realization causes me to wonder whether rice is a necessary ingredient of comfort food.

I inquired of Mother Google. She responded with some rather odd suggestions about comfort foods. One that I found particularly strange (though it might well be wonderful) was this: Rosemary Chicken Thighs with Roasted Grapes and Shallots, served over Whipped Ginger Sweet Potatoes. While the dish might well be tasty, in my view it does not fit the bill for comfort food. So I continued looking. Many of the recipes that, after consideration, I would add to a list of legitimate comfort foods, did include rice. Others included potatoes. And for others, an essential ingredient was some sort of pasta. I decided some form of starch is a required for me to consider a recipe a comfort food recipe.

Other people, though, seem to be perfectly happy labeling such things as fried chicken, buffalo wings, shakshuka, and banana pancake casseroles as comfort foods. I suppose everyone has a definition; some don’t coincide with mine. But I was happy to find many, many that include rice, offering me a bit of affirmation for my initial definition of what fits.

The downside of comfort foods, as I define them, is that they do not fit within the confines of a South Beach diet or, for the most part, with a Mediterranean lifestyle diet. That being the case, I would need to avoid stumbling into emotional valleys while on one of those diets. That’s easier said than done, of course, because circumstances know no dietary boundaries.  One must not be rigid with oneself; if circumstances call with a loud enough voice for comfort food, the diet should step aside briefly to allow one to tend to one’s emotional and gustatory needs.

An unfortunate fact of life is that using food (or alcohol or drugs or…) for comfort is tantamount to slow-motion suicide. An occasional foray into overeating or over-imbibing is not the same as habitual mistreatment of one’s body, but the linkage between deadening of pain and overindulging is unmistakable. It’s as if our minds and bodies are urged to behave responsibly, but then are tempted by desire to self-destruct. Our desire for comfort food is a recipe for self-medication. Another bad pun at a bad time. Life is strange.

There are perils in finding solace in food, just as there are perils in finding solace in alcohol or drugs. It’s all a matter of moderation. But sometimes moderation stands in the way of solace; solace requires ignoring the perils. At that point, one must ask whether solace is worth the peril. Or, to use my favorite inquisitive aphorism: Is the game worth the candle? That question applies to life itself. And, depending on the answer, the balance between solace and peril comes down on one side or the other.

And so ends another stream-of-consciousness examination of what’s on my mind this morning.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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