VPR Cafe: The Many Ways Of Defining Comfort Food

Apr 3, 2015

Whether it’s a heaping bowl of your mom’s mac and cheese, or a hearty soup from food grown in your garden, comfort food means something different to everyone.

Candace Page, food writer for the Burlington Free Press, was interested in exploring different people’s definition of comfort food and joined VPR Café to talk about her findings.

To start, Page turned to her own comfort zone: her friends and family. “I heard from more than 40 friends and friends of friends. Some … that answered my question just listed their favorite foods: everything from guacamole to Ben and Jerry’s Super Fudge Chunk,” she says.

One of the most classic definitions of comfort food that Page heard was from Kristin Carlson, director of media at Green Mountain Power. Carlson said, “Comfort food makes you feel hugged and loved. It can be rich, but also evoke a memory. For me, it is Noodle Kugel and eating leftovers after the holiday with my dad. Whenever I have it, it takes me to him.”

Next, Page turned to several local chefs for their take on comfort food. “I think chefs understand what diners mean by comfort food,” says Page. “Especially when someone is going to a restaurant … it’s not going to be challenging your palate.” Lee Duberman, chef and owner at Ariel’s in Brookfield, told Page that she doesn’t necessarily want to serve her guests their favorite comfort food. “[The food] needs to be better than mom, or different than mom, she told me. She wants people to encounter new flavors and new textures in her restaurant, and that makes a lot of sense to me,” says Page.

"Comfort food makes you feel hugged and loved. It can be rich, but also evoke a memory. For me, it is Noodle Kugel and eating leftovers after the holiday with my dad. Whenever I have it, it takes me to him." - Kristin Carlson, director of media at Green Mountain Power

Matt Pearsall, owner at Our House in Winooski, has a completely different take on comfort food. Most of the menu at his restaurant features and celebrates comfort food, including about 20 different takes on mac and cheese, one of the most quintessential comfort foods. “Despite our healthy culture, people are sneaking in to get their mac and cheese. They feel like they are cheating, but it’s like crack to some people,” he says.

"Despite our healthy culture, people are sneaking in to get their mac and cheese. They feel like they are cheating, but it's like crack to some people." - Matt Pearsall, owner at Our House in Winooski

Page says she especially enjoys comfort food when she’s feeling under the weather, so she looked at how others feeling sick may define comfort food. Cathy McIsaac, clinical nutrition manager at the University of Vermont Medical Center, told Page that they try to serve savory, appetizing food to their patients. But what struck Page must was the new system for serving food at the hospital. “There is now quite an extensive menu … And [patients] can also say when they want to eat. So, if you want to have oatmeal for dinner, if that’s your comfort food, you can do that. I think that sense of control may be very comforting for a patient,” says Page.

Rachel Nevvit, co-owner at Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg, suffers from Lyme disease and told Page that the best comfort food comes on her good days when she can cook it herself. “That process is comforting to her, when she makes a meal with the food she’s grown on the food with her husband,” says Page. “So for some people, it’s about being able to choose and some kind of control."

Finally, Page took a class at City Market to see how vegans and those who eat gluten-free experience comfort food. The instructor taught how to make a vegan, gluten-free Poutine with lentils as a meat substitute and butternut squash and coconut milk gravy. “If you’re vegan and gluten-free, you’re not going to be eating your mom’s food from when you’re young, you’re not going to be eating the traditional Quebec Poutine, and this is a way to really enjoy yourself,” she says.

The VPR Cafe is produced in collaboration with the Burlington Free Press. It is made possible on VPR by Otter Creek Kitchenware in Middlebury's Marbleworks District, offering over 70 lines of kitchenware with personalized customer service.

Update 4/5/15 12:08 p.m. The headline of this story was changed to VPR Cafe: The Many Ways Of Defining Comfort Food.