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"Comfort Food" is Not Just About the Food

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Sitting down to a meal with other chefs, the conversation is always about these incredibly hard times in our industry, both personally and professionally.

(For those of us who own our own restaurants, on our Top Ten List of Dreads, death is not on the list. Payroll is.)

I had dinner with Sara Moulton from Gourmet Magazine, Steve McDonaugh and Dan Smith, the Hearty Boys, and Rick Tramonto of TRU recently and we noted the difference between post 9/11 business and this period. While New York City stayed in a state of shock for almost 2 years, we, in the Midwest, reclaimed a sort of normalcy by the turn of the calendar to 2002.

Sara was doing a live show on the Food Network, which decided to suspend programming for an undetermined time immediately after the attack. Viewers clamored for their favorite shows to return so they could lose themselves in the "familiar".

She returned to the air and cooked "Comfort Foods". And it seems to me we have been cooking those foods ever since. But if it were just about the food, we'd all just be in our robes eating bowls of mashed potatoes and mac'n'cheese from the box.

It's about so much more.

It's about who makes the food ... where we eat it ... who we are with ... how does it make us feel ... and is it the same each time we eat it.

What makes "comfort food" is the fact that it's nourishing food served in a nurturing environment. Scientists who study "happiness" repeatedly find that people feel the most joy when they are with family or friends. It's not about the amount of money spent, it's about the quality of the overall experience. So, going out to a meal can be as satisfying as a weekend away on the happiness scale.

When a 2 year old wakes up on a Sunday and says, "INA Pancake," her understanding of what comfort food is, is already in place.

When a couple signing divorce papers at the table in the corner meet to sign them at INA'S, the food takes a back seat to the comfort that envelopes and supports them during the difficult process.

When a family brings a disabled aging parent to dinner, the effort it takes is acknowledged as we rearrange the tables to accommodate the wheelchair.

When a family brings a newborn to us on the way home from the hospital because Mom is hungry and the baby asleep, there is comfort in the safety they feel, inherent in that act.

Yes, our food is delicious, but the comfort that is found within our walls and in our hearts is what "Comfort Food" is really about.