The Healing Powers of Comfort Food

Book review: The Comfort Food Diaries, by Emily Nunn (Amazon / Book Depository)

What’s comfort food to you? What do you make or seek out when you’re blue, or need soothing? Is it what your family made when you were small, or something far away from those memories?

I thought a lot about my preferred comfort foods while reading this. I found them hard to pinpoint. Chicken dumpling soup is the one closest to comforting childhood memories for me. My grandmother’s chili and cornbread is up there, as is grilled cheese with tomato soup, that American comfort food classic that even my European husband has adopted as his comfort go-to. I find rich, spicy Indian curries, particularly takeout rather than my homemade, extremely comforting, especially at the end of a bad day in winter. They were a staple when I was overworked and exhausted in New York for many years.

As were hot fudge sundae-flavored Pop Tarts crushed into Blue Bunny ice cream (any peanut butter flavor) eaten watching TV (much about others’ comfort food choices might make you cringe.) Once after a bad breakup I mysteriously craved, and ate for weeks, shell macaroni in white cheese sauce, mixing cut-up turkey hot dogs or chicken sausages into it. My stomach turns just thinking about that oddly specific meal. I don’t have a memory connection for it either, making the strong craving all the stranger.

So what’s yours, and why?

In every city or town or village in the United States, down sterile fluorescent grocery store lanes, the standard dishes await you – so-called comfort foods frozen behind glass, calling out to the wounded…meatloaf and mashed potatoes, potpies, tuna-noodle casseroles, giant lasagnas to serve a crowd, single man-size bowls of chili. Iconic dishes fueled by the idea that your mother used to make them for you at home. Or, at the very least, that someone’s mother, somewhere, made them for her family, and it soothed them. 

Purchase this processed food memory; thaw it out, heat it up, stuff it down your pie hole, and you’ll feel better. And if you don’t feel better, well, you can just buy some more. But true comfort food is a much more complicated concept.

In a quick snap of time, Emily Nunn lost everything that gave her a foundation, albeit a shaky one, in life. Her brother committed suicide, leaving her overwhelmed with grief, regret, and questions. Shortly after, her relationship ended, and with it disappeared her posh Chicago apartment, her beloved stepdaughter, and her tentative grasp on sobriety and reality.

She drank too much and landed in the famous Betty Ford Clinic as an outpatient, did her stint and then set out slowly, unsurely, to fit together some pieces of what remained of her life, looking for clues to her identity amidst them. The common thread that she returns to again and again is food. Nunn had been a writer, including a reviewer of restaurants, for the New Yorker and the Chicago Tribune, and she recognizes her need to cook for people to show how much she loves them with the hopes of being loved back.

She’s a complicated person who’s hurting a lot but trying to do her best – as she writes that she believes most of us are trying to do at any given time. This book is a kind of therapy, for her and by extension for the reader.

“Everyone in the world must yearn for the solace associated with home and comfort food, even if they’ve never experienced it.” She chases this idea, newly unmoored and unrooted, trying on different iterations and seeking ideas of comfort and its associated foods from family and friends. Post-rehab, she wanders with pared-down possessions, accepting offers to visit or stay awhile, but worrying she’ll become Delta Dawn, the eponymous subject of the Helen Reddy or Tanya Tucker country song. I loved that reference! This is a great look at the idea of American comfort food and what it means to different people, and she incorporates some great markers of Americana as it appears in her world.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Nunn’s curiosity about comfort food is linked to childhood, and she has a complicated connection to hers. Not because of abuse or similar darkness; rather perceived slights, anger, blame, guilt, lack of communication. All the things that can set one up to be very broken later. She’s spent her adult life constantly searching for comfort in various forms.

Many dishes she encountered in her travels were familiar and nostalgic. Exploring her familial roots, she mentions scrapple, a dish made by her mother that I think holds strong associations for anyone with roots in the Midatlantic States. For those who don’t know, according to her research in the 1969 Dictionary of Cooking, it’s a “bricklike food combination composed of bits of pork cooked up with cornmeal and herbs; scrapple, supposedly a Philadelphia specialty, is usually sliced and baked or fried for breakfast.” I would add from my personal experience that those “bits of pork” are not the most desirable pieces of the pig, let’s put it that way.

Doesn’t appeal? She considers that too, that comfort food can’t be universal: One person’s comfort food can easily be another’s nightmare. Which is why, when you are trying to comfort someone else, you have to stretch a little in terms of what’s appropriate and what’s not.” Nunn spent Thanksgiving with a boyfriend who couldn’t wait for his mother’s “green salad”: not vegetables but a gelatin mold, like from ’50s homemaker magazines. 

And of course, some people share the junk food as comfort food association (see aforementioned Pop Tarts and ice cream recipe) and she touches briefly on the idea of certain foods seeming shameful despite their indulgence bringing comfort.

So many recipes are peppered throughout, linked by familial or friendly connections, or the deeply revealing personal stories someone has told Nunn about what comfort food means to them. This is the most cookbooky foodoir I’ve read. That’s not a bad thing, I actually noted several recipes I want to try (her salad dressings and something called “Beauty Soup” sound delicious) and I don’t often do that with foodoir recipes. I think bakers and more dedicated cooks will have a field day.

But this is very much equal parts food story and reckoning with family damage. She shares what she learns about herself and where she came from, all stemming from these travels and memories:

The family I got did not have to be my reference point for my place in the world, which was enormous and beautiful and full of great things that had absolutely nothing to do with them or with their silly fights.

The writing and storytelling felt uneven. Parts resonated so strongly I had to take a break from reading and get right with them in my thoughts, and some passages were written gorgeously. Others felt clunky and uncomfortable, or too heavily borrowed, like a reference to the bell jar and perhaps the most well-known literary case of a woman’s mental meltdown. That’s frustrating, when you know a writer is capable of such strength yet misses the mark, or when the first 40 pages or so wasn’t engaging despite laying the book’s premise.

I wasn’t immediately drawn in, there was a lot I didn’t like in the beginning, and I can’t say how glad I am that something made me stick with it. I was moved by Nunn’s descriptions of her messy, broken-branched family, her own misunderstandings and slights among loved ones, and her observations of the difficulties in finding one’s place in life, especially alongside the specters of aging and regret (the chapter about her dad is emotionally wrecking.) They hit powerfully.

I’m not sure if these stories would have the same effect on someone not from a similar type of family, the kind that leads to that specific type of brokenness which Nunn excellently, heartbreakingly describes. This is recommended for anyone from such a family. There’s comfort in the acknowledgement that you’re not alone.

An emotional if at times uneven memoir, cookbook, and glimpse into another’s broken but mending life that might provide insight about your own.

The Comfort Food Diaries:
My Quest For the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
by Emily Nunn
published September 26, 2017 by Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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