Food is many things. It’s necessary sustenance to keep a person alive; it’s also the reason a couple might break up, even though it could have also been the thing that brought them together in the first place. Food can incite memories, good and bad. It’s a profession for some folks — it’s also an art in and of itself. Most commonly, though, food is an emotional Swiss Army knife, equipped to bring comfort in almost any occasion that requires some comforting.
But a report in The Atlantic points out that, while most of us think that “comfort food” does the comforting via the sheer caloric intake that comes with hosing down ice cream and French fries, such a characterization undermines the social nature of comfort food. They cite a study from SUNY-Buffalo and the University of the South, in which volunteers were asked to state how adept they were at forming strong, healthy emotional bonds. “Half of them were then asked to remember a fight they’d had with someone close to them,” per the report. “When the participants were given potato chips, those who had been asked to describe a conflict ranked the snack as tastier — but only, the researchers found, among the ones with a secure attachment style. Among those whose emotional relationships were shakier, there was no significant difference in enjoyment between the people who had revisited painful memories and those who hadn’t.” In simpler terms, those who’d found the confrontation more affecting were more likely to enjoy the hell out of a chip binge.
According to researcher Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY-Buffalo, comfort food is basically a form of classical conditioning. “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of,” she told The Atlantic. “Then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging. But if, when you’re a child, those connections are more anxiety-ridden. Then when you’re older and you eat those foods, you may feel less happy.” In other words, despite what most of us have been led to believe, the bulk alone isn’t necessarily the thing that’s comforting us through a breakup or loss of some sort. Instead, it’s the psychological comfort via the memory of someone giving us a pint of Ben and Jerry’s when we were sad.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying that calories in any capacity are a go-to way to get through shit. As subjective as comfort food is, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the perfect sad-busting meal. That said, we asked a handful of people for some suggestions anyway. Because clearly, we could all use a little help.
Comfort Food for a Hangover
Chances are you’ve spent a good chunk of your life wondering when the blaring sirens in your head are going to stop ringing after a long night of drinking. During this time of mental and physical agony, you know that more than anything else, the road through your hangover is paved in calories and that you’ll need to eat before you can begin to feel human again.
Surprisingly though, the classic greasy-spoon diner food is probably not the sort of meal that’s going to bring you any sort of relief, according to nutrition expert Amy Shapiro. “Most people think that they need to eat greasy food to absorb the alcohol but that isn’t true,” she told NBC News in 2017. “By then the alcohol has been digested and processed by your body so there’s nothing to ‘absorb.’ What you’re feeling are the effects of dehydration and low blood sugar. To bring your blood sugar back up to normal, you really just need to eat anything with some carbs, but balance it out with protein or healthy fats to prevent further blood sugar drops,” she says.
To that end, my colleague Ian lecklitner had a different nutrition expert confirm that the best hangover cure is actually an omelette with avocado and some soup. “This meal [the omelette and some whole-grain toast] offers a great source of protein and helps to buffer out any of the alcohol that may still be in your system,” nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction told Lecklitner. “Meanwhile, soup is more gentle on the digestive tract than a hamburger and fries or a slice of pizza.”
Comfort Food for a Breakup
Arguably, the most common instance in which a person will reach for literally any type of food to keep their teeth busy while their heart recovers is when they’ve been dumped. The post-breakup stuffing your face trope is so common, it’s basically a must-include scene during the breakup portion of any romantic comedy. According to a 2017 survey by OnePoll market research and Yelp Eat24, “two-thirds of respondents reported that comfort food was the thing that helped them get through a breakup, calling it an ‘important’ part of the recovery process,” reports Bustle.
Earlier this year, MEL staff writer Eddie Kim spoke to Matthew Kang, food writer and editor-in-chief of the website Eater L.A., about his post breakup comfort food of choice, which he told Kim was kimchi fried rice. “One memory I have is making kimchi fried rice in Japan, of all places,” said Kang. “I just needed something that brought me home because I was homesick. I was traveling through Asia by myself and getting over a really bad breakup.”
Comfort Food for the Loss of a Job
Few experiences can feel as hopeless as the loss of a job. Which is why, according to Amanda Augustine, career advice expert for TopResume, it’s okay to indulge in a few foods that will give you some temporary comfort after your employer has broken up with you. “I mean, who hasn’t gobbled down an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup, right?” she says. “This loss can evoke feelings of a similar emotional rollercoaster to the one you ride after you get dumped by a significant other. If you’re going to indulge, choose the comfort foods that work best with your taste buds. Often, it’s a food you remember fondly from our childhood, like macaroni and cheese.”
She does warn, however, that you shouldn’t self-soothe in your comfort-food coma for too long. “It’s perfectly natural to take a little time to grieve the loss of your job, but then it’s time to get back up and activate your job search,” she says. “So consider stocking your fridge with healthy food to help you stay focused as you begin your job search. For example, bananas, almonds and other snacks that act as natural beta-blockers will help calm you if you’re still feeling rattled after receiving your pink slip. Not only are they healthy, but they can keep you jitter-free during a networking event or job interview.”
To put it another way: Don’t do this.
Comfort Food for Post-Surgery
Nothing says “I’ve just been through a traumatic experience” like soup: It requires limited amount of chewing activity for the maximum amount of nutritional satiation. This is why, for Andrea Borgen Abdallah, owner of Barcito in Downtown L.A., soup dumplings are her go-to happy meal. “They’re so warm, savory, and comforting,” she says. “And I’m always in the mood for them. I love all the dumplings. But Hui Tou [the name of the dumpling] in particular because they combine everything I love about dumplings: The crispy edges, the chewy dough and the piping hot, soupy interior into one, compact, rectangular package. They’re perfect.”
For her, the comfort is all in the experience of eating the actual dumplings. “Sharing tea, finding the just-right combo of condiments, always trying something new we haven’t heard of,” she says. “Dumplings are always best with a partner. That’s why I love them so much. They’re innately social, and the best cure.”
Comfort Food for a Funeral
There’s something very strange — but so common that it doesn’t feel strange — that happens when a person dies: Everyone eats. Whether you’re family or friends with the newly dead person, food becomes the most powerful tool for comforting yourself and others around you. According to Naomi, a funeral director in L.A., the type of food that’s most often served varies depending on the family. “The idea is to bring people together, eat and lessen the stress,” she tells me. “For many, it’s chicken and rice or sandwiches, depending on the time of the funeral.”
One thing that’s common amongst people that are grieving the death of a friend or family member is the dearth in greens and vegetables, she says. “It’s usually a full range of meats, cheeses and mini sandwiches,” she says. Not to mention all the sugar that’s usually on tap during a funeral. “Lemon bars, cheesecakes, brownies and muffins — those are staples,” she says. “People like to have simple, sweet things so they don’t have to do as much work.”
Comfort Food for Spending the Holidays Alone
Most of us — hopefully — are lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to spend the holidays with friends and family. But of course there are those of us who, for reasons that range from living too far away to voting for the wrong presidential candidate, are relegated to spending the holidays alone, inside their local T.G.I.F.
“I don’t like that,” my grandmother, who is an exceptional chef (and who tells me she’s lucky enough to have never spent the holidays alone) tells me. But she also admits that holidays aside, she does spend quite a few dinners alone. “I used to always cook for your grandfather but now it’s just me, so sometimes I grill a piece of steak and make a small side salad,” she says. “But when I have you and your brother over for dinner, I usually make extra food so I can have some the next day. That’s why I love it when you guys come over.”
Her favorite dish: “Whatever you guys like is my favorite,” she tells me. And my personal favorite, as of late, is her unrivaled jewelled rice topped with an herbaceous lamb shank stew that’s usually been cooking for at least a day in advance.
Truly, comfort food for any occasion.