Vol 13, Num 4 :: 2014.02.21 — 2014.03.06
Never underestimate how much assistance, how much satisfaction, how much comfort, how much soul and transcendence there might be in a well-made taco and a cold bottle of beer.
Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
The three of us were playing Frisbee in the mid-afternoon shadows in the bottom of the canyon when the dark clouds began filing over the edge of the cliffs into our slice of blue sky. A rumble of thunder sent us scrambling for the car so we could escape to a nearby bookstore before the deluge completely consumed our campground. Browsing the racks of used books with only pennies in our college-student pockets, we waited out the storm — and waited, and waited. After dark, when we were tired and it was clear that the rain was not going to subside, we decided to head to the site and tough it out. As our headlights shifted their gaze back into the campground, a hundred little lights reflected back at us through the windshield as the wipers sloshed back and forth: skunks. It was as though a plague of them had fallen from the storm clouds. They were everywhere. And not only that: we were famished. Our slim budget limited us to the food we’d already bought, which included, of course, hot dogs (we were camping, after all). While two of us worked to light a pathetic little fire in the soaking wet pit, the other was on skunk duty, shining the light into their critter eyes as the camp manager advised to steer them back into the darkness.
All this to say: a lukewarm hotdog never tasted so good.
When I think about comfort food, which is the topic for this issue of catapult, I often think about foods that I would not eat on a normal basis, usually highly processed, but which come with a flood of memories. Tuna noodle casserole takes me back to the kitchen table with my parents and siblings; Taco Bell and Subway to summers on a traveling softball team; canned green beans and Little Debbie snacks to hot lunches in my elementary school gym; pretzel rods to swimming lessons at the YMCA; Dilly Bars to my dad’s family cottage. The nourishment to the body may be negligible, but the nourishment to the memory is rich. The flavor, the smell, the texture — the sensual aspects return me to a place and time like no amount of just plain thinking could.
But comfort food can also be something that’s not necessarily infused with memory, but that the body is craving without the brain’s permission, often triggered by stress (doughnuts, anyone? Potato chips? Ice cream?). When we give in, the comfort is all too brief before the discomfort of guilt sets in, whether emotional or physical. In either case, there tends to be the combination of some form of pleasure with the knowledge that the food itself not only fails to contribute to the flourishing of our bodies, it might actually discourage flourishing for our land and other creatures. Can food with such high guilt content and the bitterness of cognitive dissonance be truly comforting?
In his essay “The Pleasures of Eating,” Wendell Berry writes,
Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance — is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living in a mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.
If we heed Berry’s advice, we might do well to quit bowing to the idol and pursue the true joy to which it alludes — the joy of which immediate gratification is only a tiny shadow. The process by which food becomes “comforting” is one of formation, not unlike singing hymns every Sunday to move us into a mood of worship or sitting in a certain chair each day to observe a time of silent meditation. Food as a form of comfort is a good thing, but unto what? Unto whom? We are, indeed, creatures of habit, whose physical makeup is quite literally shaped by the practices we repeat over and over again. Our habits create neural pathways, like trails in the woods that become easier to follow the better traveled they are. If we discover we’re heading in a direction we don’t like, we can create new trails. The evidence of the old ones will never disappear completely and it will take a while to make the new trails as passable, but it’s not impossible to re-route.
And why not blaze the new trails with a little help from our friends, creating fresh associations for comfort food through our collective creativity and celebration? Sure, we’re bound to return occasionally to what might more rightly be called “guilty pleasure” foods — especially when we’re camping, I say. Graham crackers smothered in Nutella are wonderful as an exception to the rule. But by pooling our resources toward a new vision for the good life — one infused with justice and kindness — we can move closer to comforting God’s people in everyday ways not with sugar highs and cheap calories, but with gratitude and wonder and love. And if this effort is truly an outpouring of the Good News in our lives, I have to believe that it’s not just for the kitchens of the rich, but for all who come to the table hungry, to be filled with good things — to be filled with bread, not stones.