|We've got a lot of post-nuclear-family angst brewing in our generation, and we're working it out on our dinner plates.
Yankee pot roast. Mashed potatoes. Macaroni and cheese. No matter how grown up and fin de siécle cutting edge we've become, we all cherish an American Mom Dish that takes us back to the good old days; some casserole or party mix whose effect on our psyches is as soothing as footie pjs and Saturday morning cartoons. Most of us gave up (or at least denied) the satisfaction we received from such declasse´ classics when nouvelle and ethnic cuisines started cooking in the mid-eighties. The world was changing at breakneck speed, and the foods of our youth didn't fit on the plates of the technological lives we found ourselves growing into. As college-educated, forward-thinking, 21st-century wunderkinder, we couldn't be caught dead indulging in PB Fluff sandwiches or carrot-and-raisin salad; we forsook the foods that gave us warm fuzzies in favor of anything that was lightly grilled or presented on a bed of organic baby greens.
Hold the aioli. Just when it seemed that nineties cuisine had pushed American classics so far onto the back burner that they'd fallen off the stove, the old standbys are making a comeback. Restaurants everywhere, from diners to supper clubs to three- and four-star hot spots, are bringing Mom Dishes back to menus, and diners are rediscovering the recipes of their youth. Grab a slice of white bread and get ready for gastric reminiscence. Whether it's Salisbury steak at an uptown restaurant or glazed ham on the patio at a swanky wine-country bistro, comfort food is back to do Betty Crocker proud. This time around, it smells like it's here to stay.
What's cooking up this hankering for comfort food? It's no secret that eating is our most common way to satisfy emotional yearnings. While some foods (most notably turkey) contain high levels of the nutrient l-tryptophan, which induces a drowsy state of well-being, most of the peace and satiety we get from certain edibles has more to do with the positive associations they inspire rather than their specific nutrient content. If our favorite babysitter fed us sloppy joes, chances are we'll get a serious craving for messy ground beef on a bun after a rough day or while stuck in nightmare traffic.
Not surprisingly, comfort foods are finding the greatest popularity with diners in their twenties and thirties, who, having finally accepted that the American dream ditched us somewhere between Reaganomics and the O.J. trial, wonder if our only hope isn't for a sense of comfort and security suspended in Aunt Alice's Jell-O salad. We may have lost our faith in relationships and job stability and even a decent housing market, but we can always count on mashed potatoes to make everything right (at least temporarily) with the world.
Most devotees of comfort cuisine are quick to recognize the connection between their love for the old favorites and the often unsettling complications of being a young adult in today's world. Let's face it: we've got a lot of post-nuclear-family angst brewing in our generation, and we're working it out on our dinner plates.
The yearning for the simpler times of days past is also reflected in the recent trend toward retro nightlife for the post-college set. No longer naive or bored enough to embrace gleefully every new sound, style and cuisine, many of us are grooving on social scenes that hearken back to the easy and familiar sophistication of past eras. Most major metropolitan areas host a number of night and supper clubs that offer live bands and swing dancing complemented by classic culinary delights. These joints are perfect for a night of cocktails, comfort foods, dancing and conversation and offer a relaxing, yesteryear experience for the mind and tummy.
If you can't find a local restaurant that's traded in mesquite chicken for liver and onions, or if you don't have the gumption to hit the city hot spots, try sating those down-home cravings at neighborhood diners, long-time havens for secret comfort-food seekers. Blue plate specials still exist out there, and there's nothing like a late-night snack of chicken-fried steak with potatoes and two sides of veggies to transport you back to the delights of mom's kitchen.
If you really want to plumb your Brady Bunch roots and start the comfort food tradition from your own stove, there are several recent cookbooks that can teach you the basics on classic and revamped American favorites. Check out All-American Comfort Food: Recipes for the Great-Tasting Food Everyone Loves, by Emily Anderson (Cumberland House, 1997); American Favorites: Streamlined and Updated, by Betty Rosbottom (Chapters Publishing Ltd., 1996); and Blue Plate Special: American Diner Cookbook, by Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett (Cumberland House 1996). If you can't make a recipe work, just give Mom a call.
Wherever your tastebuds take you in the search for comfort food, be forewarned: as you rediscover the satisfaction of classic dishes, you're likely to feel a little embarrassment at indulging wholeheartedly in what was so recently considered the most banal of cuisines. Don't let it get to you. In retro-crazed 1998, what's old is new, what's familiar is fresh and what's square is hipper than hip. If your spoon is in the tapioca pudding, you're dipping right into cutting-edge culture.
Eat hearty, be contented and please pass the gravy.