Is “Comfort Food” Another French Paradox?

8You have the sniffles and are suffering from a nasty cold; you had a really tough day at the office and are totally stressed; you have just experienced a romantic breakup and are suffering the pain of a broken heart. For many of us, the only source of comfort may be food.

Comfort food is the food we turn to for temporary relief from stress, illness and a need to feel warm and secure. The thought of it gives us a feeling of comfort and well being. Comfort food is food that makes you feel good. It is likely that as small children we latched on to a specific food or home cooking in a way similar to reaching for and holding on to a security blanket.

Comfort food is simply prepared and is most often served warm with a gravy thick texture. It is usually food with high carbohydrate content such as rice, beans or pasta. In Asian countries where rice is a mainstay food source, the comfort food is called juk. It is a mixture of rice and water cooked for many hours until it has a mush-like texture like a porridge. Juk is usually eaten with vegetables, pork, fish, shrimp or turkey mixed into it like a rice stew. In the U.S. every region has favorite foods but the universal comfort food in the U.S. is macaroni and cheese.

We know that the French are meticulous about the preparation and presentation of food. Therefore, it is no surprise that they would deny parenting any French dish that resembles a simple stew made of leftovers. Pierre Smets, chef/owner of Christophe Restaurant in Sausalito, CA, denies the existence of comfort food in France. He explains that “in France, there is regional food or traditional food but not comfort food like macaroni and cheese”.

In about 1400, English troops were about to overrun the small army defending a town in southern France. It was a cold and wet night and a major final battle was expected the next day. The citizens of the town banned together in one last effort to defeat the English. The local residents pooled all of their remaining food supplies of beans, ham, duck, lamb, onions, and sausage tomatoes. They combined all of these foods into large cooking pots and created a feast for their outnumbered soldiers. The “casserole” was both nourishing and inspirational. The troops were well fed and ready for the battle which ensued the next day. They defeated the British and drove them from the town of Carcasson, home of the cassoulet.

Ironically, Pierre Smets was born in Carcasson. And, during the rainy months in Sausalito, CA, Smets prepares a delicious cassoulet using a secret recipe given to him by his grandmaman. Of course, this is not a simple dish. The beans must soak for several days, the lamb and duck and sausages are the best quality. Pierre may call it traditional, but to me, if it looks like it, and tastes like it, and makes you feel good, it is comfort food.