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The Food Issue: A Few Helpings of Good Old Homestyle Psychology 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014
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It was a dark and stormy autumn night, the kind of night when all you want to do is curl up with someone and order takeout. But I was new in town, and the evening's bleakness just reminded me of the blunt fact that I didn't have anyone to order takeout with. When the loneliness started to close in on me, as it did on many such nights when I keenly felt the boundaries between the city and myself, I'd rouse myself from the couch and walk two blocks to the new, homey California restaurant Rich Table to wrap myself in a blanket of good food and hospitality.

Comfort food is the closest that eating comes to drugging ourselves. Instead of reaching for a bottle or needle, we're reaching for a doughnut or fried chicken leg. Sometimes we're looking to relieve a cold or hangover. Sometimes we eat for emotional reasons — depression, grief, homesickness, heartbreak. Comfort food can reassure us after a frustrating day and provide solace on the worst day of our lives. Its allure goes way beyond nutritional functionality, or even the pleasure of a great meal. There's something about our favorite comfort foods, intimate and familiar, that temporarily fills the emptiness in our soul. This is what we're exploring in this year's Food Issue.

Fat and salt release dopamine in the brain, the same chemical triggered by sex, drugs, and alcohol (a fact capitalized on by fast food and snack companies). Sugary foods give us an insulin spike that momentarily lifts our mood. Both could be reasons why we turn to food when we're distressed: A 2007 Cornell University study found that subjects ate on average 38 percent more buttered popcorn when they were watching a sad movie as a happy one.

But our drive to eat in troubled times isn't all because of brain chemistry, says Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell, one of the authors of the popcorn study and of the new book Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions to Your Everyday Life. "[Comfort food] is much more psychological than it is physiological," he says. Humans use food to influence our mood in two ways: to maintain a good mood, or regain a good mood. Wansink says that the food we reach for when we want to feel better most often has positive associations that are deeply entrenched in our memory, history, and identity. In other words, the reason that so many restaurants around the country reported a rise in sales of mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and chicken pot pie after Sept. 11 had less to do with their fat and sugar content and everything to do with their associations with the relative safety of childhood.

These positive associations with food happen throughout life — Rich Table is still a place I go when I'm feeling blue, partly because I remember how much it helped when I needed it more than I do now. I craved that warm glow of community, and I'd leave full and happy and a little drunk, carrying the glow with me as I walked home through the windy streets. We all have our own versions of Rich Table, places that make us feel safe and cared for, foods that relieve our loneliness and unhappiness. As we learn about the comfort foods of eight local writers in this issue, we discover more than just meals: We discover oases in the city where maybe we too can feel like we're coming home.

The Wealth of Nations: Seeing San Francisco on One Sandwich a Day
By Pete Kane

Good-Looking Salads: Love in the Time of Croutons
By Leah Reich

The Lunch Box Identity: Family History and a Little Juice
By Lou Bustamante

Wedding March: The Reception Dinner Without the Ceremony
By John Birdsall

Process of Elimination: A Hearty Diet of Self-Torture
By Erin Sherbert

First Meal of the Rest of Your Life: Disaster Gives Way to New Hunger
By Molly Gore

What Makes the Pain Go Away: A History of Hangovers
By Lauren Sloss

Though We Pretend Not to See: The Dirty Little Chain Secret We All Share
By Andrew Dalton

Corn Dog: Live by the Stick, Die by the Stick
By Brandon R. Reynolds


About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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