There are times when we eat to find a feeling beyond fullness. We eat looking for a measure of joy, a momentary salve for sore spirits, a feeling of goodness where something hard has set in. At times like these, we usually turn to what we call "comfort food."
There is a devious paradox to the term. The same food eaten when we feel up, not down, might be called a guilty pleasure-food that is rich and caloric, salty or very sweet, full of refined sugars or fats, and so familiar that we don't eat it thoughtfully. When we are down, it is food we turn to for its numbing effect or fleeting rush, knowing its short-lived perks will make us feel bad later on.
The idea of escaping distress by causing ourselves another kind of distress is ironic, of course, but it goes deeper than that. It reminds me of a story I was told years ago by a friend who had heard the Dalai Lama speak. He told me that at one point, the Dalai Lama began to cry.
"Why are you crying?" one reporter asked. The Dalai Lama replied that he was crying "because you are all so violent to yourselves."
Doing something we feel bad about in the name of comfort strikes me as the kind of violence he was referring to. Vowing "I will eat less comfort food" strikes me as equally violent. We all need comfort. We also need to stop pummeling our battered bodies and souls in a way that makes us feel remorse and instead find a way to fortify them when we need it most. Eating to boost our spirits is an excellent idea. But eating for comfort must be soothing and disciplined at the same time.
I have practiced both yoga and cooking for what feels like a long time and a short time, and I think yoga, more than cooking, has taught me how to eat to strengthen my spirit. The practice of yoga involves finding comfort in discomfort. Other than at the very end of a yoga practice, when one's job is to experience effortlessness in Savasana (Corpse Pose), the poses are meant to be approached in the spirit of Yoga Sutra II.46: Sthira sukham asanam (The right posture is firm and steady, but also filled with ease).
In yoga and at our tables, to bring comfort does not mean to suffocate difficulty but to smooth its passage. It implies not that we feel better momentarily, only to feel worse again soon, but that we find balance. If we choose to look at eating for comfort as a path and practice—not an anesthetic from which we awake in pain but something enduring that leaves us better equipped to deal with future problems—then in troubled times, we will turn to foods that help over the long term.
When we turn to food for solace, we should choose dishes that are an expression of our principles and beliefs, not an exception to them. If our personal philosophies have led us to food choices that make us feel good, then those same philosophies should help guide us in our moments of psychic pain when "good" is exactly what we need to feel. In this way, we can give new meaning to the idea of comfort food with recipes, preparations, and tastes that bring pleasure and coherence to moments of despair-steadiness and comfort at once.
These foods can still soothe with their richness or saltiness, their sweetness, and their compliant texture. I recently ate a deeply comforting meal of Rice and Lettuce Soup. It contained a good deal of green parsley and a lot of broth. There was crispness and softness to the lettuce that drew me out of mindless spooning for a moment and tugged me into the world outside my head, where I would have been stuck wishing I'd returned a phone call or feeling the sting of a situation I was handling clumsily.
Many of my most comforting meals rely on the quiet tranquility of eggs. It's easy to keep eggs from pastured chickens in the house, and each time I cook one, I know I'm supporting good environmental stewardship. They also pair well with the terrestrial solidity of beans, good bread, or rice.
I'm drawn, too, to olive-oily, garlicky cooked collard greens or kale, as well as a handful of raw, roughly chopped parsley or cilantro. Green leaves remind ?me that soil exists, which is grounding. I also know how kind I am being to my liver and to my bones.
I like there to be a few contrasting textures. I prefer highly seasoned broths because liquid reminds me of the sea, and strong seasoning evokes an unkempt sea, and both are true and good.
If it sounds like these aren't the sorts of things one thinks about in times ?of trouble, try to remember how good it feels to help another person, or the world, when you need help. It's the fastest way out of any pit, as we've all learned at some point.
You don't have to strive for thorough balance with greens and varied texture all the time. It might be that today you need something that is simple, frank, and plain-food that could placate even the most poisoned system.
A friend of mine who was very sick with the hopeless-seeming effects of chemotherapy subsisted during the worst days of the treatment on my Chickpea Pasta. It's a simple dish, with no strong smells and no cutting required in its preparation. Run-of-the-mill canned chickpeas are simply simmered and cared for in a lot of olive oil, which causes a sort of internal and external smoothing.
After eating that dish, or any other comfort food I've made, I have always felt that no matter what my difficulties are, at the very least, I can do this. At ?the very least, I'm full and revived. And I always feel grateful to the compassionate being—me—who has kindly and simply fed me. She seems reliable, someone I am glad to have on my side.
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Tamar Adler is the author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.