Sunday, January 29, 2023

Comfort foods make us whole

by Bill Rutherford
| November 3, 2010 9:00 PM

"I love scraping out the guts," Quin giggles with her arm, shoulder deep inside a 30-pound Halloween pumpkin. "It feels gushy," she offers pulling out a handful of seeds and slime. I smile as my grandchildren laugh while creating scary, squash carvings in celebration of the changing season. Still grinning, I breathe deeply as the kitchen fills with the smell of fresh pumpkin - I feel comfortable.

For me, pumpkin is comfort food but what makes it comfortable? Comfort food is food whose smell and taste are emotionally paired with positive past experiences. When consumed, these foods make us whole. The smell of roasting turkey floods my mind with grandparents I will never see again, laughing, playing football, snow and old dogs.

The simple smell of green bean casserole warms my soul as I remember my wife and my first Christmas together and the smell of fresh pumpkins takes me back to the freezing snow of South Dakota, trick-or-treating with my daughter. These memories create the warmth and comfort of one's life.

Why do some foods offer comfort while others repulse? How can a child hate liver or fresh oysters then learn to love the once hated food as an adult? The answer is biological predisposition.

For humans to survive, we must consume things that allow us to live and avoid eating things that cause our death. Nature prepares the members of each species to learn things crucial to their survival. Someone who readily learns a taste aversion is unlikely to eat the same toxic food again and is more likely to survive and leave decedents. Sounds simple but the complexity of our biology makes it confusing.

Here's how it works. People feed by smelling then tasting. Humans are biologically predisposed through smell and taste to recognize food that makes them sick. By smelling then tasting food, one gains an aversion to food that tastes like other food that made the person sick previously; therefore avoiding the food. Conversely, when smelling food that is paired with joyous or happy experiences, we crave to repeat the positive experience and search to consume more food, recreating happy days.

Biological predisposition also creates the need to crave fatty, sweet food as the days shorten and our natural food sources diminish. We are biologically designed to pack on weight to survive the food-scarce winter. Just as the bear prepares for hibernation, humans prepare for winter by craving foods that typically ripen in late summer and early autumn. These foods include sugar-filled fruits, berries and fatty animals.

With the invention of the grocery store and easily accessible out-of-season food, comes a change in reaction to our biology. Instead of ingesting food in season we now smell and taste summer fruits in the middle of winter and our biology demands the continual bulking in preparation of the never-to-come, food barren winter. Processed, heavily sweetened and fatty foods mimic the fresh apples and elk of mid-autumn. We overeat frozen pizza and cheese filled Danish as our brain and body begins to slow and our waistband stretches to its limit.

As humans, we have exceptional memories for taste and smell. One can smell the perfume of their kindergarten teacher at age 53 and instantly become transported back to a 5-year-old learning to write the No. 7. While walking in Seattle's Pike Street Market one smells a bakery and daydreams about being in grandmother's kitchen eating buttered, homemade, bread as a child.

Smell can also create the opposite effect and make one sick. In a well-known study, coyotes and wolves are tempted to eat sheep carcasses laced with poison that make them sick. These animals developed an aversion to sheep meat and stayed away. Even the smell of sheep created a fear response in the wolves and coyotes. Two wolves later penned with a live sheep seemed actually to fear it.

Pregnant women also experience this phenomenon. When a woman has morning sickness due to pregnancy, she can only hold down small amounts of certain foods in the morning - yogurt, crackers, applesauce or cereal for example. As the wolf that becomes fearful of the sheep, the woman becomes nauseous when introduced to that same food after the pregnancy. The smell of the food and the memory of the nausea take the woman mentally back to the morning sickness experience making the woman nauseous again.

This desire to overcome biology explains why kids can hate oysters as a child and actually desire them as an adult. Remember the kindergarten teacher and her perfume? Let's use the same analogy to explain the oyster dilemma.

I'm sitting at my dining room table as a child and told I have to take three bites of the evil, foul-tasting oyster before I can be dismissed from the table. I really do not want to eat the nasty tasting mollusk but can't figure how to get paroled from the table without eating my three bites. After an hour at the table and numerous bouts of scolding from my parent, I gag and try the first bite. Knowing I have two more bites to go, I wait another hour, become frustrated and hold my breath as I shove two bites in my mouth and swallow - yuck!

Jump ahead 15 years. I'm in Monterey, Calif., sitting at a restaurant overlooking the Monterey bay with the sun just beginning to set. I'm offered three oysters on the half shell by the waitress who is an oyster aficionada. She explains that oysters are named for the bay in which they are raised; some are sweet while others saltier but all great oysters taste like a deep breath of ocean air.

I reluctantly raise the first oyster to my lips. As I smell the oyster, negative memories flood my mind. I remember sitting at my dining room table as a kid struggling to take the first bite of three while being yelled at and gagging. I put the oyster down and contemplate my next move.

With urging from the server, I again raise the oyster to my mouth but think only of the ocean and the sweat smell of this particular oyster. I squeeze lemon on the bivalve and let the oyster slip into my mouth, chew twice and swallow. I begin to rewrite my memory of oysters. Replaced with the gagging, two-hour dining episodes of my childhood is the beautiful Central California coast, otters playing in the bay and a beautiful orangey sunset.

Now, as my life gets hectic and I need a small mental vacation, I order fresh oysters on the half shell, squeeze on a little lemon and allow my mind to flood with positive ocean memories. Oysters are now one of my comfort foods.

Next week we will continue this topic exploring how a person can become emotionally involved with an onion, answer why drug addicts "flashback," offer an experiment for you to do at home to change your approach to food and give recipes of my comfort food - pumpkins.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at and check out

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