For a many aging boomers who grew up in the 50's and 60's, it's impossible to forget the variety of comfort foods, plain, simple and wholesome, planned and prepared by mothers, grandmothers and aunts, for family meals, which formed the centerpiece of a much less hurried and frenetic life.
Fast food had barely been invented, "take-out" was largely mediocre Chinese, and restaurants only for very special occasions. Few women worked. With only one income, and multiple mouths to feed, steaks and chops were mostly out of reach. Memorable meals required imagination, the ability to mix and match the ordinary, available and inexpensive to produce large quantities of great tasting stuff.
Diners reached their peak in popularity during this period because they served affordable fare for the masses. Stews, soups, hash, dumplings, potpies, meatloaf, canned corn, liver and onions, liver and bacon, pot roast, chicken fried steak, chopped steak, back ribs, short ribs, gravies of every color, consistency and flavor, kidneys, hearts, gizzards, bread pudding, tapioca pudding, chocolate, lemon and strawberry puddings, homemade pies, cakes, and cookies.
Since then the packaged, microwavable, one-stop supermarket meal has taken hold to allow us to literally eat on the run. It's the rare family that dines leisurely as a unit to share the day's experiences. More often, dinner is a necessary interruption in an overcrowded agenda. Comfort foods rarely work well in a pressure cooker.
The over the road truck driver, on the other hand, uses the truck stop to relax. Biscuits and gravy – hamburger goulash – corned beef hash and eggs – cherry cobbler – down-home comfort foods dominate the menu, as the break, the downtime, is as important as the meal. The food produces memories of a slower paced and more social lifestyle.
Clearly today, these foods are viewed, for the most part, with a rural, country, suburban bias. As in the fashion ready-to-wear business, what comes around goes around, and like Capri pants and PT Cruisers, comfort foods have been discovered by the urban hip. Not because they remember grandma's oyster stew, but because comfort foods provide a dramatic contrast with an over herbed rack of lamb, a shallot laden veal chop, or a vegetarian lasagna. In a word, comfort foods taste great without basil, salsa or bean sprouts. Raisin bread pudding with vanilla sauce overpowers tofu every time.
As a result, the trendiest new four and five star eateries like Chicago's Ultra Chic Grille and the new Four Season Cafe, now feature prime rib hash, chicken potpie and short ribs, along side Chateaubriand, seared tuna wasabi, and lobster Provencale.
It remains to be seen if a classic pot roast in that setting produces the same warmth and inner calm achieved in the neighborhood deli, but it is fun to discover that the high-tech connected Porsche Boxster set is accepting with gusto the same hearty fare long enjoyed by the Peterbilt crowd.
Old favorites become new favorites, proving again that good taste always survives the test of time.