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Italy Roundtable: Comfort Food is a Cultural Thing

This is the sixth installment of the Italy Blogging Roundtable I started with four amazing bloggers in May. Each month we all write about the same Italy-related topic, sharing our unique perspectives with you and each other. This month’s topic is “COMFORT FOOD.” Do you have suggestions for future topics? Let us know by leaving a note in the comments!

Comfort Food: It’s a Cultural Thing

The notion of “comfort” is imprinted in each of us before we’re truly sentient beings. We are comforted by the sounds of familiar voices as soon as we’re born, and the things that bring us solace throughout our lives are often things that remind us of childhood experiences when we felt safe and at ease. This is true of smells, sounds, and – perhaps most especially – tastes.
So it is, then, that “comfort food” is not just a phrase but an industry. The piece that can be easy to forget is that while other people and other cultures may find your version of “comfort food” distasteful, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own version. Long-term travelers and expats – and, really, anyone who’s gotten sick while traveling – can probably all point to the moment when it dawned on them that the foods they were craving to soothe or provide temporary relief weren’t the same foods used around the world for those same purposes.

Take, for instance, the remedies your mother used to serve when you were ill. In my case, tummy troubles always meant a never-ending supply of Saltines, ginger ale, bland chicken noodle soup, and (only when I was feeling a little better) Cream of Wheat or cinnamon toast with a scant coating of butter. To this day, there’s very little else that sounds at all appealing when my stomach is upset besides ginger ale, crackers, thin soup, and toast. These foods are by no means the height of great cuisine, but they offer metaphorical comfort as much as (if not more than) actual physical comfort.
On a recent trip to Mexico, since the topic of “comfort food” was on my mind, I asked a local guide, “When people here have an upset stomach, what is the thing everyone says to eat to make it better?”
“Papaya,” he said, without hesitation.
By that point in the trip, I’d had some delicious papaya – but I couldn’t fathom wanting any if my stomach was unsettled.

Fruit? With all that acidity? When my stomach is unstable? No way.
One of the Italian culinary remedies for unhappy tummies is a dish that’s considered mild but fortifying – it’s a dish everyone in Italy knows, but it’s so boring that it’s not on menus. It’s the kind of thing mothers make for ailing children, or husbands serve to pregnant wives who have morning sickness. This relatively bland and boring dish, however, while you’ll be hard-pressed to find it on a menu in Italy, is one of the most popular in Italian restaurants all over the United States.
It’s the so-called fettucine alfredo, otherwise known in Italy as pasta in bianco.
(By now, you may have already heard the story of how this pasta dish got the name “Alfredo,” and how it was exported to America – but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the cultural aspects of this “comfort food.”)
Pasta in bianco is quintessential Italian comfort food – it’s pasta, after all – but the presence of even the slightest coating of butter and parmigiano cheese makes me think it wouldn’t be appealing if my stomach was unsettled.

Dairy? When I’m feeling queasy? Are you kidding me?
Papaya and pasta in bianco are, of course, only two examples of “comfort foods” served in different parts of the world – there are as many examples as there are cultures, and no doubt many more of them would make me think my stomach would be unhappier after the remedy than before.
But here’s the rub – biologically, we all have the same stomachs, do we not? Yes, we are accustomed to certain foods and others may have tiny little organisms that may make us sick, but aside from that we are cut from basically the same cloth. If I’d been born in the U.S. but raised in Italy, I’d certainly gravitate toward pasta in bianco at the first signs of an upset stomach, and likewise for Mexico and papaya. What makes ginger ale and cinnamon toast “comfort food” for me, then, is the same thing that makes papaya sound dreadful – my mind.
“Comfort food” may be food, but what gives it consoling properties isn’t the mouth or stomach at all – it’s the brain. Can you, then, adopt the “comfort foods” of another culture as an adult? How long does it take for another culture’s “comfort foods” to trump your own familiar remedies? Or is it a case of expanding one’s “comfort food” horizons rather than one replacing another?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I’m intrigued about their possibilities. And I’d love to know what you think – what are your experiences with “comfort food” around the world?

Other Voices from the Italy Blogging Roundtable

Find out what the other members of the Italy Blogging Roundtable conjured up when they thought about “autumn in Italy.”. Click the links below to read their contributions to the Roundtable, and leave comments to join in the conversation. Tune in next month for another Roundtable round-up!

Italy Blogging Roundtable Archives:
photos, top to bottom, by: karendotcom127, william.neuheisel, LoopZilla