At my pie shop, sales in October were up over 50% from last year—a surprisingly encouraging statistic to emerge from the food industry (or any industry) these days. While I am beyond grateful for this phenomenon, I can’t help but think of it as just that—a phenomenon. I struggle to wrap my mind around this somewhat basic manifestation of human nature. I ask myself the same question that friends ask me when I tell them how business is going—people really want pie right now?
Yes, it turns out they really, really do. This becomes less surprising when you briefly consider how many times over the last few months you could have stress-eaten a whole pie in one sitting. It is a practically universal comfort food, something warm and buttery and delicately laced with that unidentifiable flavor that can only be compared to the tender love of a grandparent. Pie sales are booming because, throughout many months of social isolation and political tension, we have continually and collectively turned to food for comfort.
Naturally, our indulgences of choice have changed with the passing seasons and stages of quarantine. People who had previously never made something as simple as chocolate chip cookies suddenly attempted to master the art of sourdough, longing for a stimulating and time consuming project to fill the endless hours of early spring. Samin Nosrat emotionally and physically (though digitally) supported some of us through a large format, from-scratch lasagna recipe designed to raise spirits and improve technical skills. Regretful watchers of The Election Night Results On Cable News planned soothing meals of baked mac & cheese or beef stew to calm their anxious souls. FaceTime and Zoom replaced our beloved restaurants and dinner parties as a way to share meals with friends and loved ones across state and country lines, in the hopes of maintaining a meaningful connection, even from afar.
Throughout the spring and summer, people were spending substantial time and energy in their home kitchens and gardens… and actually enjoying it. I was fielding (and asking) more culinary questions than ever before. What can be swapped for white wine in a recipe? What’s the trick to getting pasta sauce nice and glossy? How low and slow should I be cooking this entire rack of ribs? In many ways, my wildest dreams were coming true—everyone was paying attention to their food again.
Now that the leaves have all but fallen and the first hints of frost are creeping in, those months of windowsill scallions and recipe swaps are beginning to feel like a distant memory. It was certainly easier to find joy in experimenting with new dishes when markets were overflowing with bountiful bundles of asparagus, tomatoes, nectarines, and basil. As someone who practices and preaches a culinary style centered around local and seasonal produce, it is impossible to ignore that the annual monotony of butternut squash and oyster mushrooms is upon us.
And still, as we tuck inside and re-familiarize ourselves with the forgotten hobbies of March or April, we may also once again turn to food for support. For many, the sadness surrounding a missed holiday meal is all consuming, and understandably so. But perhaps this is an opportunity to redefine the food that gives us comfort—after all, aren’t we at least a little bit tired of painfully overstuffing our bodies with the same mashed potatoes and turkey every year?
Sure—sometimes it is necessary to throw up your hands in surrender and order a whole pie for yourself. Sometimes that feels really damn good. But perhaps, in this tumultuous year of reflection and growth, it is also necessary to look at turnips and leeks with increased excitement. Maybe we should let ourselves be comforted by cabbage pickled to perfection, or pears cooked with cardamom and pistachios.
For me, comfort food is something that makes me feel, well, comfortable. It’s a dish that feels like a gentle hug. It’s an ingredient that reminds me fondly of all its past manifestations. It’s meal that leaves me feeling content, and just full enough.
This season, comfort food takes the form of a black tea and lavender yogurt cake, baked on a frigid day and ever-so-slightly reminiscent of my dad’s banana bread. It is a delicate but hearty salmon fillet in a honey soy sauce with toasted mushroom rice, eaten with a good neighbor and an even better friend. It is a shepherd’s pie, made with fragrant seasonings and all of the root vegetables one can imagine. It is food that makes me feel undeniably and unimaginably good.
And so, as we bundle up in our small apartments with nowhere to go and nothing to do, let us choose to fill the air with warm scents of sausage and rosemary and cloves. Let’s start our mornings with bitter coffee and fried eggs and sweet potato hash. This winter, let’s find comfort in food in simpler terms. Let’s eat what makes us feel good, and share it with those we can.