Taste: Ideas: Too Comfortable

The March “How America Eats” issue of Bon Appetit spotted a new trend for 2005: Comfort food is in. Most of the magazine’s picks are implausible: “Artisanal food” is in, as though next year Bon Appetit could possibly claim that it’s out, while “mass-produced, poor-quality ingredients from corporate factories” are in. But among permanent food trends, comfort food has a remarkable place: Not only is it always in, but journalists seem intent on always declaring it a new phenomenon. In Philadelphia, comfort food seems — like most things—to be whatever Stephen Starr says it is at a given time. His nouveau diner Jones opened in 2002 boasting of a “comfort food menu.” The mashed potatoes shoveled onto a plate there are, it seems, comforting. The wasabi mashed potatoes at Buddakan, the lobster mashed potatoes at Continental, and the $9 whipped potato side at Barclay Prime are apparently designed without the diner’s repose in mind. Old City’s Farmacia opened late last year as a mishmash of motifs — medicinal, agricultural, Asian — but a press release summed up the jungle as "traditional comfort foods."

The comfort-food trend may be food journalism’s laziest trope. “Comfort food is in vogue,” the San Diego Union-Tribune declared in early 2000; however, the Las Vegas Review-Journal later proposed that the trend started after September 11th. In 1999, the New York Times proclaimed a “trend” that “comfort food is more popular than ever.” In its FoodTRENDS ’96 report, the Thomas Food Industry Register, a trade publication, included a comfort-food boom. Why was comfort food taking off in 1996? Sixteen percent of those surveyed said it was “because they are tired of ‘trendy’ foods.”