Comfort is defined as something that soothes or consoles us–that brings us reassurance, relief or consolation. Comfort is a state of ease and satisfaction of bodily wants, unconstrained by pain or anxiety.
And though there are some things that stray from this definition –Southern Comfort has left me in states far from the aforementioned description– comfort food seems to truly embody this definition.
Traditional comfort foods typically fall into the gooey and warm category–think meatloaf, pulled pork, mashed potatoes, tuna noodle casserole and grilled cheese. Comfort foods are the edible equivalents of a hug from every character in the “100 Acre Woods” and “Fraggle Rock” combined. It’s a cozy, delicious sweater for your stomach. Every bite seems to bring warmth, and they settle in your belly like mushy little love letters weighed down by the depth of the feelings they contain–or by their heavy carb/starch/cheese content.
The point is: Comfort foods are different. Its incredible power to bring us ease lies not only in their external consistency and taste, but in the representative power of the dish.
The reason we associate specific foods with comfort is because of our history with them. It’s the memory of your dad singing goofy songs as he dished out heaping plates of sloppy Joe’s that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, not the meat itself, or the idea of your aunt in her high-waist shorts, yelling at your cousins to stay away from the sprinkler while she loaded your plate with potato salad. The salad is good, but its greater purpose lies in its ability to remind you of the past.
Comfort food has come into its own in recent years, with more establishments seeking to recreate childhood classics. Jones, located at Seventh and Chestnut streets, is Stephen Starr’s take on comfort food.
The two seem intrinsically antithetical–Starr’s reputation for fine dining experiences and the lumpy, butter-y food usually associated with dinners back home are less like a PB&J kind of match, and more like a halibut and marshmallow pairing. But Starr is famous for his ability to create an atmosphere and Jones really does seem to capture the chaos of a family dinner.
The first notable thing about Jones in comparison to most high-end joints was the child to adult ratio. Looking out across the room, there was movement in every corner, driven by some youngster shimmying across the booth for a better view or running in circles near the table to blow off some mid-appetizer steam. The noise level was also notably higher, with less clinking of cutlery and soft laughter and more toddler whining and parental shushing.
The menu had all the staples of traditional comfort food, plus a few updated versions of old classics. The raw tuna tacos weren’t exactly what ‘Ma’ used to make, but they had me wishing they were a staple in my early diet. The brisket came appropriately soaked in gravy, and accompanied by divinely seasoned red potatoes and lemon-y green beans. Everything was delicious, and yet something was not totally there for me.
Maybe it was the fact that I was being charged a pretty steep price for something my grandma used to whip up on the regular. Or the idea of a menu playing on my memories and heartstrings as a patron, and trying to sell me things based on sentimentality. But mostly, I think it was the idea of selling comfort food without the key ingredients that make it so comforting.
Whether Stephen Starr is a terrific guy or not is totally debatable–I’ve never met the dude, and as much as I love his restaurants I’m not about to go bonkers and assume he’s just as magical as his menus. But one thing I know for sure: He’s not interested in how my day at school was. And sous-chef Jeff back in the kitchen isn’t thinking about cheering me up after a bad tennis match as he cooks my green beans.
I also highly doubt that prep cook Wally knows to add extra pepper to my potatoes because it reminds me of my favorite childhood book. And if he does, I am concerned. Wally would have to be stalking me for a long time to make that connection. Get a life Wally! Go watch some TV or pick up a hobby or something!
While the dishes offered at Jones were reminiscent of my comfort foods in taste, they lacked the warm and fuzzy feelings put into each dish by the person creating it. What makes it comfort food is the intention–that dish was made for you, with love, by someone who cares about your well-being. It’s impossible to recreate that in a restaurant atmosphere.
My advice? Call up your Mom or your Uncle Roger or old neighbor Cathy. Talk to them for a while, reminisce about your past, let them know how much you care about them, then ask for a recipe. Recreating the dishes you loved, that remind you most of home is a wonderful way to really find comfort in food. Even if your green bean casserole is a total disaster, there’s something about the process that connects you to the person you love and brings a sense of ease.
Jones is a good substitute if you find yourself really yearning for home cooking with nowhere to go. But remember that the best homecooking, as the name suggests, probably comes from your own home. Take this as an opportunity to connect with people you love with a meal. And maybe, armed with a new recipe and flame-retardant oven mitts, you’ll be able to create comfort for someone else.
Caitlin Weigel can be reached at email@example.com.