"What do you like to eat when you're sick?"
The woman in my life had just found me sick for the first time and had asked what was to her the most helpful question.
No one had asked me that for decades. But the answer followed automatically:
"Tapioca pudding. And beef bouillon on Holland Rusks, if you can find them."
She called this comfort food, and that's as good a name as any I've been able to apply. It's the food no doctor ever prescribes for you--at least officially--(and that's why you won't find room-temperature 7-Up in this article) and no hospital ever thinks to include a convalescent's diet.
But everyone knows about it. When you have the blahs or the genuine shivers and shakes, when your world has shrunk to the boundaries of your fingers and toes, when the weather outside is frightful and nothing else will cheer you up, comfort food makes you feel pampered and cared for.
Associated With Home Cooking
Comfort food is probably the food your mother prepared for you when you were a sick tyke. One person even called it mother food. It seems still, even in the days of food so fast it's instant, to be associated with home cooking.
Comfort food remains comforting. I asked a random selection of about 125 people of all ages to describe their favorites and stood back, overwhelmed by lengthy, enthusiastic responses.
It may be technically possible to separate comfort food from simple childhood favorites such as the Fudgesicle I always had before nap time or the old-fashioned cooking that Mom did when the children came home for the holidays, but the lines do blur. What is remarkable is the universality of comfort foods.
Consider that evocative, soggy heap of white-bread toast, melted butter, salt and pepper and warmed milk called milk toast. Although it acquired various monikers (sops, according to one English-born respondent and graveyard stew, per an elderly aficionado of short-order lingo) it made the list of practically everyone older than 50. Not that all thought kindly of it--it was bland and associated with sickness--but how they remembered it.
And consider special teas. One Latino mentioned with great zest the te de yerba buena her mother always provided when she was ill. The good herb of the title is mint, and mint tea showed up on many non-Latino lists. One longtime Californian remembered cambric tea, which was simply very weak tea laced with milk and sugar. Hot tea with various alcoholic infusions was popular--peach and cherry brandies sounded yummy. Chamomile tea, sassafras tea--all gentle, all well-remembered.
Apparently nothing is more universally comforting than chicken, unless it's soup. Thus chicken soups appeared on many lists. So much for the invalidity of stereotype. Though homemade soups led the way, Campbell's Chicken Noodle was clearly etched into memory, and equally so for those older and younger than 30.
Stewed or Boiled
If the chicken didn't get made into comforting soups, it tended to be stewed or otherwise boiled, combined in that brothy rich state with soft white things--rice, noodles (homemade, especially if the respondents were Middle-European) or potatoes. A native Chinese especially praised congee rice gruel with chicken and mustard greens.
The most frequently mentioned combination of hot foods was chicken and mashed potatoes. But mashed potatoes outranked all other vegetables. If you don't think a potato is a vegetable, tune out. Potatoes swept the boards. One 20-year-old virtually shouted, "mashed, baked, fried, French, au gratin or raw." An older woman mused that no matter how many wondrous things she cooked for her husband, it was the home-fried potatoes when he was sick that he'd talk about. Second only to chicken soup among the soups was potato soup, none more tasty sounding than kartoffel und bonne soupe met knockwurst.
Gravy goes well with potatoes, and gravy of various types rated high, even by itself. Oft-mentioned sandwiches came with gravy. All the sandwiches at the top of the list tended to be those you could sink teeth and thumbs into, such as grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly. Then there was the pensive soul who said, "When I'm feeling depressed I like to eat a club sandwich; I don't know why, and now that I think about it, it's kind of weird."
People of all ages mentioned cinnamon toast; not only that, they knew that real cinnamon toast wasn't commercially prepared and that it wasn't made in a toaster. Older respondents recalled the simple, satisfying sandwich made from bread, butter and sugar.