This week’s question comes from A.V. Club deputy managing editor Caitlin PenzeyMoog:
This is horrible, because I know I should say, “Oh, a good homemade mac and cheese,” or “a hearty stew” or something adults eat, but it’s SpaghettiOs With Meatballs. I ate them a lot as a kid—when they came in tiny half cans—and for whatever reason, they’re just comforting to me. They’re shitty and manufactured, but they’re always the same. They’re hot, easy to make, and always available, even at relatively dodgy stores. They remind me of home, and of easiness, and it’s just one of those things that I can eat while I tune out and watch some dumb TV. They’re the food equivalent of the T-shirt you’ve had since middle school, and, you know, I’m fine with that.
I suspect a lot of these responses will follow a long thread back to childhood. Growing up, instant ramen noodles were our family’s go-to convenience food. All through middle school and high school I’d eat it with such frightening regularity that it’s a wonder little 12-year-old me wasn’t stumbling around in pain, joints swollen and kidney stone-ridden from all the sodium I was taking in. I prepared my Maruchan mushroom flavor identically each time with scallion, a healthy dash of Kikkoman soy sauce, and, inexplicably, a haphazard pour of Frank’s RedHot hot sauce. I only stopped consuming the stuff, ironically, when I began college and learned how to cook. A few years ago, our natural foods co-op began carrying Koyo instant ramen and I got back on the kick. In the intervening years, I’ve had the chance to enjoy plenty of delicious, authentic ramen, and I’ve subsequently updated my recipe to reflect that. Now I poach an egg in the broth. It’s a filthy mongrel of a meal, an insult to each ingredient used, but I love that familiar MSG-laden brine.
Like Nick, my comfort food stems from childhood. My mother’s maiden name was Melfi, which always makes me think that we are somehow related to The Sopranos’ David Chase, as he named Tony’s psychiatrist after his own grandmother. So on my mother’s Italian side, giant pasta dishes were very popular: Even at Christmas, we’d have turkey and lasagne. Eventually, my mother figured out that stuffed shells (with spinach and ricotta) was an easier dish to pull together than fighting with sheets of lasagne noodles, and it became a family staple. She was a great cook, and an even better baker (which I am not), but the shells became the one dish where she said I had improved on her original. Not sure why that is. I don’t even use a recipe for it any more, so it just depends on how creative I’m being with the garlic, basil, and oregano that day. But whenever I make it (with enough garlic bread on the side to satisfy even Scott Pilgrim), my feeling of missing my mother is tempered by the knowledge that there are parts of her, like her cooking, that I will always retain and enjoy and pass along to my own family, making it the ultimate comfort food for me.
Here’s a super Asian answer for you: Comfort food to me is anything slathered in ginger-scallion sauce. In Hong Kong, where I grew up, this was the default condiment to many hot meals—on poached chicken, atop crispy noodles, or as the lone accompaniment with rice. I’ve since found ways to incorporate it in Western dishes, including omelets and grilled pork chops, and it’s just as addictive. You can treat it as you would Italian salsa verde or Argentine chimichurri, but it has a more straightforward onion flavor and a mellow ginger bite. And it couldn’t be easier to make: Add salt and MSG to chopped scallions and minced ginger. Pour very hot peanut oil over it all, stir, and let cool. It keeps in the fridge for a month.
Like my colleagues whose comfort food ties into childhood, mine is baked goods, specifically chocolate chip cookies, explicitly the Toll House recipe found on the back of its bag of chocolate chips. I made this recipe so often throughout my childhood that I have it memorized. Making this recipe with my mom and sister is my earliest cooking memory, and I baked it steadily through my teen years, converted it to the metric system when I was living in Argentina, and whip it up now when I’m hosting a gathering. It’s the cookie I compare all others to. I even make mine in a specific, if unintended way: Probably due to over-mixing the dough, my cookies always come out flat. My family calls these by the uninspired “Caity’s flat cookies.” For a while I tried to correct to make them puffier, but now I like my comfort food the way I have for years: gooey, and low enough that the chocolate chips stick out.
My favorite comfort food also happens to be my favorite food, period: chicken and sausage gumbo. There are many ways to make gumbo, but as a native of South Louisiana, I prefer the Cajun way (read: no tomatoes in sight), with a dark, thick roux and fragrant with thyme. Ladle it over your rice and grab a big hunk of French bread, and that is heaven. It reminds me of home, of course, and of sitting around watching everyone cook in my maw maw’s kitchen when I was a kid, a football game inevitably blaring from the living room TV. Gumbo is comforting in a way most stews are—hearty, warming—and making it as an adult, I find even its labor-intensiveness brings me a sort of groundedness. Honestly, if there’s one good thing about living somewhere like Chicago with an extended cold season, it’s that it means an extended gumbo season.
I have an unhealthy relationship with fast food in general, and McDonald’s specifically, to the point that I’ve frequently referred to the Golden Arches, with only a smidge of irony, as “Food Church.” Part of it is childhood familiarity, some of it is an admiration for the cold efficiency of the company’s massive human machine, but most of it is the taste: greasy and salty and hot. (And with the chemical burn of an ice-filled fountain Coke to wash it down? Perfection.) Back before McDonald’s breakfast became an all-day temptation, it was my Holy Grail; if I was up early, something had gone wrong (or at least inconvenient) in my life, and there were few balms for my wounded spirit more calming than to grab a newspaper, plop down in a booth, put on my headphones to block out the morning rush, and commune with my greasy Sausage Egg And Biscuit gods.
As a kid, my mom’s go-to easy and fun meal was pigs in a blanket, but not the pancake kind you’re thinking of. She’d wrap buttered sandwich bread around some American cheese and a hot dog and bake it, and the result was a glorious sleepover specialty, typically paired with tater tots. I introduced them to my wife years ago, and occasionally we still sort of look at each other and shrug, “Pigs in a blanket?” at the end of a long week. But I do that less for comfort than the fact that it is a culinary masterwork, one of the most sublime and simple meals imaginable, and you can buy all the ingredients for it from pretty much any shitty bodega in Chicago. My actual comfort food is much less extravagant. If you ever see me trudging from the convenience store with nothing but a bag of pretzels in tow, please do not make direct eye contact with me, and know that something has triggered me to seek this crutch, to feel nothing but crunchy, salty bread. I will eat that entire bag, sometimes starting it on the way home. Sometimes they are rods; often they are simple twists; never are they sticks. Maybe I’ll dip them in some mustard, but more likely I will just shovel them into my face sans accompaniment. Pretzels are everywhere, they are cheap, and they are wonderfully bland; they are as close to an old blanket as something edible can be.
I live in Chicago in a pocket of post-Soviet immigrants (mostly Ukrainians), so my diet still contains a lot of cheap brownish Slavic foods, since that’s what’s for sale at the neighborhood grocery stores. But nothing hits that nostalgia-zone comfort food spot like eating rice or pasta with Eastern European ketchup, which is almost as much of a staple of lovable post-Soviet crappiness as knock-off plastic Nike flip-flops and rugs hung on walls. Kevin and I have had this discussion before (and hopefully, some day an A.V. Club article will come out of it), but ketchup from the Eastern bloc has a different and distinct taste and smell, and we have a habit of over-using it; it wasn’t until after several years of living in the United States that I discovered the existence of pasta sauce or the fact that soy sauce wasn’t just something they had in restaurants. And as sad and disgusting as it sounds, sometimes I just get a hankering to cook up some white rice and slather it in ketchup (usually Polish) so that I can relive the crappiest meals of my childhood.
I grew up down the street from one of the most fast food-rich strips of highway imaginable. KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Checkers, Dunkin’ Donuts—they were all right there, piled on top of each other and sharing a half-mile stretch of saturated-fat heaven with countless diners, pizzerias, and Chinese takeout places. Needless to say, it wasn’t great for the diet of an indoor kid like me. When I got older, I swore off the stuff entirely, but there was one joint I couldn’t, and still can’t, help myself from going to for a pick-me-up when I needed it most: Taco Bell. It’s horrible and it wreaks havoc on my wimpy gastrointestinal tract, but sometimes when I’m stressed the hell out and I can’t bring myself to eat right, I crave a bag full of that homogenous, vaguely ethnic slop. I could rattle off a few favorite menu items—double-decker tacos for a classic pick, the shredded-chicken quesarito for a modern monstrosity—but let’s face it, it’s all made of the same stuff anyway.
My favorite culinary comfort requires, at least, a four-hour drive, which is in and of itself a relief, because otherwise I’d be made entirely of Detroit-style Coney Island loose hamburgers. The storied history of Coney Island eateries in and around the Motor City has little to do with their New York namesake, and everything to do with some mad-genius Greek immigrants who took Coney Island’s signature dish—a natural casing hot dog—and smothered it with chili sauce, diced onions, and a long squirt of yellow mustard. The satisfying “snap” of a Koegel’s frank is synonymous with “Coney” in the area, but I prefer its ground-beef cousin, the filling of which I eat as if the bun were a bread bowl, before slicing up the grease-soaked remnants and dipping them in the spare mustard. Disgusting, yes, but something I can only order within a 50-mile radius of my hometown, from a loosely connected network of greasy spoons with long hours and bottomless reserves of chili.
I’ve only found one food that has ever consistently sounded good, tasted good, and brought me comfort regardless of situation or time of day: Jack’s frozen pizza. First of all, make sure you’re getting the original, not the “naturally rising crust” type. (I really enjoy the latter as well, but it’s to be used in cases of extreme hunger or when you’re sharing, as it’s much more filling than my trusty original crust, and will therefore either leave you too full or frustrated that there are two slices of delicious pizza remaining. Yes, I am fully aware that sounds insane. Also, I just like the crispy thin crust better, truth be told.) Second of all, while I will allow for the occasional topping version, nothing is superior to the simplicity of the plain cheese. It’s the best frozen pizza, because it’s the most minimalist pizza imaginable, yet avoids both the Scylla of shitty cardboard flavor (like so many other low-budget frozen pizzas) and Charybdis of too-chewy fakery like DiGiorno’s (which costs twice as much and is half as tasty). When I was in high school, I would eat one every night at midnight during the school week, as that was usually about the time I finished my homework. I would weigh 400 pounds if I tried that bullshit now, and honestly, it makes me sad, because I’m never more comforted than when I’m shoveling Jack’s down my gullet. I should probably be sending it Father’s Day cards.