It's a cold season to be alone, and I'm not just referring to the weather. V-Day can do a number on even the most self-assured single. A holiday dedicated to romantic coupledom leaves those of us who haven't tied the knot—and who aren't on our way—feeling like wallflowers at a junior high dance. One perfectly understandable reaction is slinking into a warm, dark place and stuffing your face. Back in my early teens, Butterfingers and Oreos were common sources of comfort—treats that evoked the feeling of being indulged and rewarded, making me feel special instead of ignored.
But at some point, the treat strategy backfires. Ever found yourself standing in front of the freezer, spoon in hand, as "just a bite" of Rocky Road becomes a whole pint of it? In the land of excess, it's not hard to find solace spiraling into self-destruction. A little common sense reveals that it's much more satisfying to console oneself by harnessing the power of food, rather than letting food fuel loneliness and inadequacy.
Consider how the food is consumed, i.e., rapidly in a hunched-over posture—as if eating it more quickly will somehow prevent one's body from processing the calories and chemicals. Compare the Rocky Road scenario to the experience of savoring a bowl of chocolate-dipped strawberries while lounging in a leisurely, lavender-scented bath. Each has its own charm, but one engages all the senses (not to mention supporting physical and mental health), while the other leads to guilt and anxiety (as well as outrageous power bills from standing in front of the open freezer).
Why is it so hard to walk the line when it comes to comfort food? To start with, food has the power to link us to each other, bringing back distant memories, and evoking our common, fundamental humanity. Many of the most comforting foods are the easy-to-digest, creamy-textured ones. Mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese and banana pudding could all be considered children's foods.
In fact, much of what you personally find appetizing when you're low harkens back to what you ate as a child, which may explain why I have such a visceral reaction to a simple bowl of lentil soup with whole wheat bread. To further illuminate the mysteries of comfort food, I talked to some of my favorite chefs and restaurateurs in the area to find out what flavors go best with the taste of the blues.
Jenny Sledge, caterer and Jenny's Lunch Line maven, ranks chicken soup with matzoh balls —served regularly at at the Lunch Line—and grilled cheese sandwiches made with sharp cheddar as her top comfort foods. In addition, being from Atlanta, Sledge finds comfort in traditional Southern food such as cheese grits, black-eyed peas and turnip greens. When it comes to chocolate, Sledge goes for an all-American standard: the Reese's peanut butter cup.
Richard Langston of Cafe Vicino prefers savory foods for comfort. According to Langston, "Chocolate is for happy times." Like Sledge, though, Langston hankers for simple, hearty foods, in particular, family recipes. "Grandma's recipes bring back past recollections of childhood," he says, and better times that can help him make it through a low stretch. These simple dishes include chicken and dumplings, beef stew, chili and homemade soups.
Lou Aaron, who runs both Westside Drive-In and Chef Lou's at 8th Street, also finds foods that "bring back childhood and home" to be his comfort. Like Sledge, Aaron is from the South (Alabama) so his first choice when he's down is a bowl of shrimp gumbo, followed by banana pudding or maybe peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. Aaron also loves chicken and dumplings, hearty soups and homemade milkshakes. Like any good chef, Aaron prefers homemade, even when he's blue.
"Cooking gets my mind off stuff," he says.
Patrick Brewer, mastermind behind the French pastries at La Vie en Rose, admits that he doesn't eat a lot when he get sdepressed. However, when he does pick up a fork, it's accompanied by a steak knife and a soup spoon, so as to dig into a rare steak and homemade Italian sausage and white bean soup, along with home-baked bread, preferably consumed in front of a fireplace. It gets warm by the fire, so Brewer follows his feast with vanilla ice cream topped with homemade caramel. He's also a firm believer of the cocoa bean's healing power.
"Good chocolate is always good for a heartbreak, and true bittersweet Belgian chocolate is the best," he says.
One of the Basque Market's recent cooking classes focused on traditional comfort foods of the Basque country: braised lamb shank and rice pudding. Braised lamb shank cooks slowly, all day long, which warms the house and makes it smell good, according to co-owner Tara McElhose-Eiguren. Other decadent treats of the area include deep-fried croquettas and red bean soup (served with a requisite bottle of red wine). If you're in serious need of comfort, try the chocolate cream pudding, a fudge-like dessert. Says McElhose-Eiguren, "I can't normally eat a whole one, but I could manage if I were down in the dumps."
Tacos are Mexico's premier comfort food, but they're "not what you'd find at Taco Bell," says Ben Barrera of Nampa's La Parrilla Juarez. Both recipes start with a soft corn tortilla, but the authentic version will as likely be filled with shredded cow's tongue, cheek meat, or barbacoa (whence the English "barbecue" derives) as generic ground beef. A true Mexican taco is topped with onions and cilantro rather than lettuce and tomato—and is rarely found in the singular, since a real taco is about half the size of its U.S. counterpart. According to Barrera, you can eat 10 to 12 tacos in a sitting, which sounds about right for a comfort food.
In Vietnam, comfort food is just like grandma's chicken noodle soup, but with a regional twist. According to Jenny Vuong at Vietnamese Restaurant, Southeast Asian comfort comes in a bowl of pho, a chunky beef or chicken broth with rice noodles, flavored with sweet spices like star anise, ginger, cloves and cardamon. The Vietnamese blues can also be assuaged with canh chua, a tangy soup of shrimp, pineapple, tomato, celery and bean sprouts served with steamed rice. Fruits such as oranges, pomelos (grapefruit-like citrus) or a small berry-like tropical fruit appropriately named "love apple," can also soothe a broken heart, without a subsequent battle of the bulge. And for those who prefer a sweeter fare, there is che, a pudding-like dessert made from mung beans and sugar.
So now you know, there are plenty of alternatives to drowning your sorrows in endless Twinkies. Good, hearty, home-cooked fare can be had, even if you don't feel like cooking. This Valentine's Day, go out and enjoy a tasty bowl of stew and some rice pudding. Bake yourself an elaborate cake and take it to work (making sure to save yourself the best piece). Or invite your unattached buddies out for a raucous meal that makes all the couples in the place secretly long for their freedom. Just think about that group of geeks crazy-dancing in the back of the junior high dance who actually had more fun than any of the slow-dancing couples. When it comes to comfort food, everyone deserves a treat, but a real reward shouldn't hurt.