OFF THE RECORD: Americans seek solace in comfort food

While inhaling fully loaded hotdogs at the Bayview Cash Store Sports Pub during the Mariners' October playoffs, a fellow female fan commented on how her appetite had amazingly ballooned since the tragedy of 9/11. And her pants had magically shrunk.

With the extra added stress of wondering if our beloved Boys of Seattle would make it all the way to the World Series, mindless snacking was really rearing its ugly behind. "At the rate I'm going," she said while stuffing in another handful of popcorn, "I won't be able to fit through the door!"

A slight exaggeration, of course. But folks in fact have been chewing down extra hard due to post-attack anxieties.According to the American Dietetic Association, based in Chicago, a lot of us have been reaching out for so-called "comfort foods" in the past few months.

Comfort foods have been around forever. In fact, the non-haute cuisine term even made it into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 1977. According to M-W, comfort food is "food prepared in a traditional style, having an unusually nostalgic or sentimental appeal."

Comfort foods vary from person to person. Think homemade bread. Chocolate. Chicken soup. Then there's macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken pot pie, peanut butter, biscuits and gravy, milkshakes, cheeseburgers, blueberry pancakes, and my favorite: egg salad sandwiches.

Linda Wertheimer, host of NPR's popular "All Things Considered," invited a group of chefs on her show and they came up with their top four comfort foods: Chicken in a Pot, London Mac and Cheese, Pumpkin Rocks with Cream Cheese Frosting (cookies) and Chocolate Pudding. Yum.

"There is no question that comfort foods -- ice cream, mashed potatoes, peanut butter and jelly -- are helpful to many people during stressful times," said Leslie Bonci, a Pittsburgh registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"This is a difficult time for everyone. It's easy to feel that world events are spiraling out of our personal control. But for most people, food choices are among the few things we usually can have control over," Bonci said.

So who eats what? In an article in the January 2001 issue of Psychology Today, Kirsten Galisson reports that in a study of 1,005 men and women, ice cream was rated as the top comfort food for both. But when you split up the sexes, men and women crave different foods. "While some women tend to yearn for sweet, indulgent foods like chocolate, men usually seek hot dishes like pizza," said Galisson. The article was based on findings by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a University of Illinois marketing professor.

Restaurants serving comfort food abound around the U.S. today. In New York City they have such mouthwatering names as Chat 'n' Chew, Mama's, and Bubby's. Seattle's got Jitterbug, 5 Spot, and Hattie's Hat.

And South Whidbey? Neil's Clover Patch, Mike's Place and the Freeland Cafe. Longtime restaurant owner Neil Colburn, who has been serving "cafe food" at Neil's Clover Patch Cafe in Bayview since 1983, has noticed an increase in the consumption of certain comfort foods on his "non-tourist gourmet" menu. "People are eating more meat," said Colburn, who added, "Nobody leaves the Clover Patch hungry."

The affable restaurateur said that popular items include chicken fried steak, breaded veal cutlet, mashed potatoes and homemade gravy, pork chops, liver and onions, and applesauce. "And prime rib," adds Colburn. "Prime rib is the ultimate comfort food."

But when Colburn asked teenage son Willie about his favorite comfort food, the response was typical: "Whatever's in the fridge."

So how do we stop eating all our favorite foods? Dietitian Bonci suggests avoiding the urge to eat as a way to quell anger or to overcome depression or loneliness. "Learn to deal with emotions in a positive way. Compared with nibbling, physical activity such as a brisk walk or a bike ride offers a more lasting way to resolve your moods. Sometimes even a brief change of scenery does the trick," she said.

"Remember, you don't have to give up comfort foods in order to eat right. Just be aware of your portions," said Bonci.

And if you need tips in print, here are suggestions from the American Dietetic Association on how to enjoy your favorite comfort foods:

• Top low-fat ice cream with granola, or try sherbet topped with fruit.

• If cookies are your comfort food, opt for oatmeal-raisin, vanilla wafers or gingersnaps.

• If you prefer salty foods, try popcorn, pretzels dipped in spicy mustard or baked tortilla chips and salsa.

• Add naturally sweet sliced or dried fruit to cereal, yogurt or pancakes.

If all else fails, call me or send an e-mail. I've got a mean recipe called Overnight Mashed Potato Casserole, made with loads of butter and sour cream. It's even better the day after, and serves 8-10.

Sue Frause can be reached by e-mail at

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