The other day as I was having a conversation with someone I had just met, and as all first conversations go, we were sharing pleasantries and asking questions of one another. And then the inevitable Colorado question was asked: Are you a native?
These days it seems not many people in Colorado are natives, and alas, I am not one of them. But I also wasn’t one of the people that spent their whole life in one place and then wanted to venture out and see the world. Due to the nature of my father’s job, I spent my childhood moving from place to place, from Indiana to South Carolina to Tennessee to Ohio. A few years here and a few years there made for some challenging transitions and constant change.
But in spite of all the moving we did, I could count on one constant, no matter what state we ended up in: our old antique kitchen table would always come with us and every night, my mom would cook up and place on that table the delicious, comforting recipes that defined my childhood. And even if it was our first night in a new house, the appearance of those familiar foods helped us feel like we were home.
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It’s no surprise that food is one of the most common things that evokes nostalgia. And my daughter, Zoey, who is learning all about the 5 senses, did a remarkable job explaining why the other day; at dinner, she pinched her nose and excitedly exclaimed, “If you plug your nose, you can’t taste anything! We taste because we can smell!”
We are mostly nostalgic about food because of the scent of food and how our olfactory sense goes into overdrive when we eat. Think about how the scent of a food you loved as a child can instantly transport you back in time.
But when it comes to comfort food, there’s even more at play. A 2015 study shows that the power of comfort food may lie primarily in the associations it calls to mind. Another one back in 2011 delved into this concept even further by studying people’s associations with chicken soup, a food often associated with the feeling of being taken care of. Those individuals who found the chicken soup most satisfying tended to have stronger emotional relationships.
According to Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging.”
As for me and my own childhood nostalgia, the food that I associate with belonging, with my roots firmly planted in the South and the Midwest, is rich and cheese-laced or sweet and decadent:
- My grandmother’s Christmas cookies, for which I would wait for the postman to deliver every holiday season, and her delicious zucchini bread, baked in old coffee tins and spread thick with butter;
- Krispy Kreme donuts, which my dad would treat my brother and I to on Sundays. I remember standing against the glass wall and watching the sweet confections run through the conveyor belt as they were drizzled with their iced, sugary glaze, waiting patiently as a dozen warm ones were placed in that green and red cardboard box, and then finally sinking our teeth into two or three or four of them, the air-filled dough melting in our tiny, happy mouths;
- The home-cooked family meals of spaghetti and meatloaf and hamburgers and pot roasts and casseroles so delicious and filling that the thought of eating the vegetables that were also on the table (unless it came in the form of a potato) was almost too much to bear.
Of all the food that I consumed as a child, my hands-down favorite was my mom’s chicken casserole. Consisting of only five ingredients, the recipe was simple, but when they all came together in that Pyrex baking dish, hot and steaming out of the oven, the combination was a forkful of heaven.
Although as an adult I don’t make this meal often, my mom always makes this when she visits, and with one bite, I’m transported back to childhood dinners, where we’d sit around the table with this dish in front of us. The anticipation of the creamy, cheesy goodness would make my mouth water and although I desperately wanted to be the one to get the first bite, I would wait patiently as we’d take each others hands, bow our heads, and say a blessing for the food in front of us and the family around us.
What I love about this recipe, too, is that it has become one of my daughter’s favorites as well. I hope that this nostalgic dish is one that she also passes down to her children, and more importantly, one that she passes down with the memories she has associated with it: Sitting around a table filled with food and warmth and the people she loves, sharing stories, laughter, and warmth. Her memories will most likely be similar to the ones I associate with this recipe, and I love that we will have a shared nostalgia for this simple, delicious meal.
Mom’s Best Chicken Casserole
- 1 1/2 cups cooked elbow or shell macaroni
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 1/2 cups cooked chicken
- 1 can cream of chicken soup
- 1 cup milk
- Heat oven to 350 degrees.
- Stir all the ingredients together and pour into greased casserole dish.
- Cover and bake for 1 hour.
(Makes 4-6 servings.)
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February’s Everyday Nostalgia has been all about warmth, and what better way to create warmth in your life than remembering the “comfort” foods that nourished your youth and make them a part of your life today? Take out those recipe books and cards (the ones your parents passed down) and whip up some of grandma’s pancakes or cupcakes or pies, or your dad’s fall-off-the bone rib recipe, or that steak recipe you couldn’t get enough of, or meatloaf, or turkey dinner, or mac and cheese, or whatever happy recipe you associate with your childhood. Or, if you don’t like to bake or cook, find some of the foods that made you happy as a kid at a restaurant.
However you plan on enjoying your favorite comfort dishes, grab your friends and family to share in some togetherness, laughter, love, and nostalgia while you eat lots of that good, good food. And whatever it is you choose to make or find and eat, your and your loved ones’ hearts—and stomachs—are sure to be happy. Because the food we eat not only comforts our minds and bodies, it comforts our souls, too.
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Talk to us! What are some of the foods and recipes that comfort you? What foods transport you to your childhood? Are you passing down comfort food recipes to your children? Let us know in the comments!
Week 7 Suggested Reading
I love that the desire to get back to the nostalgic comforting foods of our past seems to be a universal feeling these days. Yesterday as I was checking out at the grocery store I saw a special edition of Bon Apetit magazine called Comfort: The Ultimate Cooking Companion | 95 Essential Recipes. If you search for comfort food on Pinterest, thousands upon thousands of options come up. Countless websites focus on comforting foods like Kitchen Nostalgia, The Comfort of Cooking, and Simple Comfort Food. And for those desiring to make their comfort foods just a little bit healthier, sites like Emily Bites and The Clever Carrot will help you out. Of course, you can also find hundreds of cookbooks devoted to good ol’ fashioned comfort food, including this little gem:
Nobody knows comfort food like Gooseberry Patch—and with more than 260 fast and flavorful recipes, Everyday Comfort Food is a must-have in every cook’s collection. From Cheesy Chicken Tetrazzini to Loaded Baked Potato Soup to Mom’s Favorite Meatloaf, the recipes in this book provide countless heartwarming meals perfect for everyday. I remember the Gooseberry Patch cookbooks and planners from back in the day, so I’m personally nostalgic for that cute little goose that happily graces the cover of this cookbook, too.
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Just joining me on my journey? Catch up on the Everyday Nostalgia series here.