Essay: What Comfort Food Means to Me

It’s food for the soul.


Over the course of many years dining out for reviews, I’ve had some extraordinary meals – reserve cuts of meat, foie gras, you name it. But when I think about things that I really love and take joy in eating, it’s stuff from my childhood. Like cream of wheat. Weird, right?

Well, my mom used to make it on cold school-day mornings, topped with a pat of butter and plenty of brown sugar that melted into the hot cereal. It was heaven. I confess that I still love it. My cream of wheat is another person’s sloppy joes or Kraft mac and cheese.

We all have different foods that conjure up the warm fuzzies. And really anything is fair game, especially if it’s connected to memory and the sweet, carefree days of childhood. My childhood was defined by comfort food – not necessarily mine. My father was a classic meat-and-potatoes guy, heavy on the meat. Well, heavy on the potatoes, too – preferably mashed. It soothed, to some extent, the stresses of the workday.

My mom was one of those 1970s housewives who collected recipe cards. These recipes were usually not things that a kid would want to eat. I remember a strange sort of baked loaf made from store-bought chow mein noodles (which we also used to top our pork chop suey). But these recipe cards promised time savings and used economical common kitchen-cupboard ingredients – old reliables.



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It’s when I’m talking with chef Zak Baker, of the pasteria Ca’Lucchenzo, that I think I’ve grasped the allure of this form of sustenance. Baker compares it to listening to a favorite song. “You’re not trying to break new ground,” he says. It’s a deliciously familiar tune that never gets old.

I have a co-worker who wears a well-loved sweater with holes in the sleeves that he can’t bear to part with.

He says he’s looked for a replacement for it, but he basically wants the same sweater, a style he can no longer find. That 18-year-old sweater is the equivalent of comfort food: Nothing else feels quite like it.

Sometimes that comes from having something for so long that it almost becomes part of you, or maybe you were introduced to it in a pivotal time of life (as in, childhood) and it almost becomes emblematic. How often do you hear salad or grilled fish described as comfort food? We may like those things, but they don’t have the same power as a glob of carbohydrates or a warm bowl of chili or chicken soup that calms the central nervous system.

I’ll take that threadbare sweater over fresh-off-the-shelf-new any day.

Did You Know? 

  • Home cooks have been making mac and cheese since the 1800s. The processed, boxed variety debuted as “Kraft Dinner” (with its package of processed cheese powder) in 1937.
  • Comfort food, per The Dictionary of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani, is “any food that a person considers to put him at ease, often as nostalgia for a favored childhood food.”
  • In the 1700s, potatoes were banned for human consumption in France and used only as animal feed. That ended when imprisoned Frenchman Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who was forced to live on a diet of potatoes, sang the spud’s praises after his release. He gave demos on how to prepare the tuber (including mashed, which was new at the time), creating the public will that eventually scuttled the country’s potato prohibition.
  • Canned cream of mushroom soup was first made by Campbell’s in 1934. In Minnesota, the thickening ingredient is called “Lutheran binder” and is frequently used in “hot dish,” which folks in Wisconsin would call a casserole.
  • American meatloaf has its origins in a Pennsylvania-Dutch creation called scrapple, a congealed sort of loaf made from pork scraps, cornmeal and flour that’s sliced and pan-fried.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.