“Comfort food” is a ubiquitous term, but its definition is anything but standard. To some, it’s a slice of greasy pizza or a warm, gooey cookie. To others, it’s a tuna croquette, fried chicken cutlet, or a pile of saucy noodles.
There’s a complex answer to why a particular food is so satisfying during times of sickness, stress or celebration. And a lot of it has to do with smell.
“There is a real neuro-anatomical link between smell and emotion and emotional memory that doesn’t exist between any of our other senses,” said Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist who teaches at both Brown University and Boston College and is the author of “Why You Eat What You Eat.”
Herz explained that the areas in the brain where smells are processed are the same places where emotions and emotional memories are processed and stored.
“So we have this really unique neuro-anatomical connection between smell in the brain and emotion and emotional memory and learning,” she said.
“When we experience a smell in conjunction with something going on around us, the way that we learn what it is has to do with the meaning of the situation of what’s going on and the emotions that are involved. So smells can literally become proxies for emotions. So when we smell them again, we immediately feel the emotion that was connected to them when we first experienced them.”
That helps explain why the smell of mom’s chicken noodle soup gives you the warm and fuzzies, and why a whiff of grandma’s most beloved recipe puts you back in the kitchen with her.
One can also find comfort in compounds. Herz said people tend to gravitate toward foods high in carbohydrates, fat, salt and sugar when they need a pick-me-up, and this is because these compounds release neurochemicals in the body that make one feel good.
For this miniseries, we interviewed three D.C.-area chefs on their favorite comfort foods, and how the tastes, smells and experiences from their childhoods influence how they cook and eat today.
David Guas still remembers his first Cuban sandwich. It was with his grandfather, who would often take him to a family-run Cuban restaurant in New Orleans.
“And I remember going in there with my grandfather and him just yapping with the butchers for like 30 minutes. And here I am, 7, 8 years old and he’s going on and on and on, and the guys have blood all over their aprons and stuff. I just thought it was so cool,” said Guas, a chef and New Orleans native.
“They’re going on and on in Spanish and they’re like buddies and hugs and handshakes and he’d get special cuts of meat from them, and then in the meantime we’d order a Cuban sandwich to split. So that was my first memory of that [dish].”
And it’s a dish that Guas still makes every Wednesday at his Arlington, Virginia, restaurant, Bayou Bakery — complete with homemade pickles and po’boy bread.
Growing up in New Orleans in a Cuban-American family, Guas said he was “definitely eating things that other kids weren’t” by the age of 5. Dinner might be his mom’s chicken liver one night and his grandmother’s croquettes another.
“She made these tuna ones that I can still taste today, and of course, I’ve made them since. She would just serve them with a lime wedge and some salt and toss them in generic breadcrumbs and throw them in her little FryDaddy in her little tiny kitchen, next to her ashtray,” Guas said.
“But I remember that. I remember her cooking them, I remember her prepping them, and I remember devouring them, and that is a memory that sticks with me.”
Then, there were the snacks in his grandfather’s pantry — guava paste, sliced right out of the can with a piece of sharp cheese on Cuban crackers.
“Just very strange things that I find on occasion at Latin markets and [they] just immediately send me back there,” Guas said.
Southern cuisine has been the main focus of Guas’ culinary career. Bayou Bakery’s menu is stacked with gumbo, braised collards and a muff-a-lotta sandwich. But Guas, who recently traveled to Havana with his dad to learn more about his family’s history and culture while “chasing some of the memories” from his father’s childhood, also keeps a close check on his Cuban roots.
He also offers a Cuban menu weekly at Bayou Bakery with pastelitos con carne, picadillo with plantains and yucca, and yes, the Cuban sandwich.
However, even chefs have a guilty pleasures, and when Guas comes home after a long day in the kitchen, he heads straight to the freezer for a box of frozen Double-Stuf Oreos. Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream is also at the top of his preference sheet, and Guas blames his mother for both of his go-to comfort foods.
“It’s something I picked up from her. She’d hide her candy in the freezer … and I definitely have that sweet tooth from her,” he said.