When future culinary historians trace the curious place of comfort food in America's high-end restaurants, they may linger on the period we're living in right now. Daniel Boulud's famous foie gras--stuffed hamburger, launched 10 years ago in New York, spawned a host of mega-burger imitators, often mega-priced, and a whole trend involving high-end/lowbrow food, from ludicrously overpriced bologna sandwiches to hot dogs made with locally sourced pork jowls to truffled mac and cheese. Luxurious versions of homey dishes have now become a cliché in urban American life—a widespread but phony (and fattening) oversimplification of the pleasures of food.
The demand for souped-up comfort in American life is growing for reasons that have nothing to do with eating: rapid social change, a precarious economy, a work life that consumes more and more of our time. And food can answer the need for comfort. It can connect us to childhood memories. But "comfort food," as it's found on most menus, I would venture to guess, is quite different from the childhood foods of most of its customers.
The trend reminds me of a Woody Allen story in which he has a near-death experience and his life flashes before his eyes... until he realizes that the life flashing before his eyes is not actually his life. Our comfort food obsession indulges nostalgia for a childhood that most of us didn't have.
For me, there are two comfort-food dishes: my mother's poached salmon with wild rice and my grandmother's stewed rhubarb. Both connect me with specific childhood memories—summers in Eastern Canada, fishing expeditions, large family meals. Neither are fat bombs.
One of the most salient features of comfort food is how personal it is. The Milanese designer Valentino once described his perfect meal, and it wasn't any of the elaborate dishes with luxury ingredients you might expect from a multimillionaire purveyor of outrageously expensive dresses: His perfect meal was a Roman bean stew. Every Italian that I know believes that the best food in the world comes from about a mile from where he or she was born—a specific kind of soft cheese or a pasta with just-caught squid in its own ink. The food that really satisfies us is basic but prepared just so: Even a peanut butter sandwich can be unspeakably comforting if it's made the way you've always liked it.
Comfort food on most menus makes chefs' jobs easier, giving them cover to cook with lots of fat. But fatty foods ultimately makes us feel worse, more anxious, less satisfied. A lot of this fancy comfort food is actually closer to country-fair food: deep-fried Pepsi or bacon-wrapped turkey legs. The carny connection picks up speed as the trend trickles down, reaching rock bottom with something like KFC's Double Down—cheese and bacon sandwiched between two pieces of fried chicken instead of a bun.
I recently ate a hundred-dollar burger at the newly opened M:brgr in Toronto: two slabs of Kobe beef, with brie, piave del vecchio cheese, truffle carpaccio, and honey-truffle aioli, so big it would have required pythonlike jaw dislocation to consume. You know how it tasted? Pretty good. But not even in the same league as the burgers made with onion soup powder I used to eat at the lake with my cousins.
The comfort-food craze does hint at an understanding that cooking with love is just as important as cooking with brains, and that realization—particularly among celebrity chefs and the foodies who shape wider attitudes toward food in America—is loaded with potential. Love is often right at the heart of the acts of cooking and of eating. It may not be the place of a restaurant to tell us why stewed rhubarb cooked by someone we love tastes better than duck confit cooked by a French genius. Thinking about the true meaning of "comfort" in the comfort-food idea takes us to an even deeper, more meaningful place, where food truly made with love nourishes the soul as much as the body.