What is comfort food?
The term comfort food was possibly coined in 1966 on the American newspaper Palm Beach Post, to describe the type of food eaten by adults under stress (Wikipedia). The term is associated with:
- Food that provides nostalgic, sentimental value
- Food that reminds us of the security of childhood
- Food that provides pleasure, an emotional high, relaxation
- Food we consume as a treat (in given circumstances)
- Food we consume as an emotional response
The first time I translated comfort food
I was teaching Spanish GCSE (secondary school level) to an adult class 15+ years ago, but learning went beyond GCSE vocabulary (aka fish and chips), helping students get top grades. With a degree in translation and teaching a mix of highly inquisitive people, the questions that popped up were often challenging.
I have visual memory and great memories of all my groups and this one included a GP, a lung consultant, a nurse, two GCSE language teachers, a trainee PE teacher, a psychologist, among others. We were studying food, and Tim (I think that was his name, I have no memory for names) asked “how do you say comfort food in Spanish?”. My knowledge of the English language wasn’t that of today, but I remember, based on the description they provided, suggesting “las comidas de la abuela” (grandmother’s food), what I thought could be the emotional Spanish equivalent. It seems I wasn’t too far out, or was I? Keep reading.
Translating comfort food professionally
Translators jump with joy when someone shares a glossary online, but professional food translation is not something you do from any online glossary. No food translator in their right mind would share their made-with-love slow-baked glossaries.
Professional food translation requires a full understanding of the food culture you are translating from and the one you are translating for. You can use glossaries to help, certainly, but the good ones will be written by food specialists and they won’t suit all your texts. And it’s monolingual glossaries that will be more helpful, those that include descriptions and examples, not the typical bilingual word to word equivalence.
I recently saw “tetilla” translated as “Galician cheese” on such a free bilingual glossary. Let me tell you that tetilla is not the only Galician cheese. Let me ask you: what has the reader learnt about tetilla there? What and how much information we share with our reader depends on our specific text and purpose.
Databases such as Reverso.Context are just as useless. You’ll find the following translations for comfort food, all in short extracts without context. It is, then, hard to decide if the use is correct or not; but many are not correct Spanish.
- Comida casera (homemade food)
- Comida reconfortante (restoring food)
- Comida de consuelo (consoling food) – not idiomatic and not a thing
- Comida de consolación (consoling food) – not idiomatic either
- Comida cómoda (comfy food) – beg your pardon?
- Comida de comodidad (food of convenience) – not idiomatic
- [term omitted] = not translated, left out
- Algo agradable de comer – something pleasant to eat
- Comida apetecible – appetising food
- Son muy ricos – they’re very tasty (original: It is comfort food)
In reality, the concept of comfort food is complex; it means different things to different people. So here is my tip: decide whether you need a global concept, in which case you’ll need a longer sentence, or a specific connotation, say comforting, but never pick a translation just because someone translated it that way before, whoever that person is. The meaning you need will come from the speaker who used it and their context, not from the speaker the other person was translating.
What comfort food is for me
The first thing I picture as comfort food is soup. I’m talking about liquidy soup, with greens and possibly some meat, what you fancy when you have a cold. I have few memories of my dad, who died of a heart attack when I was close to 7. In one of them, we’re all seating at the table eating caldo gallego (a spring greens soup from Galicia) and I want seconds, or is it thirds? I can’t quite see him, but my dad is there, maybe he wants seconds too. Maybe I’m copying him. My only other memory of the four of us is in the garden under the apple trees. We’re happy, except perhaps mum: he’s undone her apron at the back to annoy her! Memories of being together as a family.
My second comfort food is crème caramel, my and my mum’s favourite dessert in a rush, the one she would order every time we ate out. It’s soothing and sweet (in that order) and, these days, I have to have a crème brulée (I’ve become posher and posher, you see) whenever my husband makes chilli con carne. His comfort food is spicy.
I can perfectly imagine squidgy Spanish cupcakes as my comfort food too, though these days I go for madeleines (the influence of foreign cookbooks). Equally, although I’ve never eaten it again, I could still taste the creaminess and delicate crunch of the bread and butter sprinkled with sugar we would sometimes have as an afternoon snack as kids. A Nocilla tartine (Spanish Nutella tartine) does not quite conjure up the same feelings, though I buy chocolate spread as a treat once in a blue moon.
The good news for me is that comfort is an acquired taste and, having lived in the UK for twenty years, I’ve gained new comforts. First is tea, which I could not function without, mao jian being my current sweetheart. Next is sticky toffee pudding, warm and soothing on a cold winter’s night, preceded by apple crumble on autumn afternoons. I have international comforts. What’s your expat comfort food?
What comfort food is for others
Overall, comfort food is food that makes you feel especially good and happy, and this would be linked to memories from childhood. The usage of the term might, however, be affected by what marketers want to sell us. Are you picturing healthy or unhealthy food?
As I’m currently curating the ITI Food and Drink Twitter account, I asked the network what they associated with comfort food and got answers that prove some of the points being outlined below:
- Charlotte, British, defines comfort food as something she can eat when she is feeling not-very-well or miserable. Food that’s easy to cook, eat and digest, and also tastes good, and gives scrambled eggs as an example.
- Alison, also British, sees mash with baked beans as comfort food, although not totally sure why.
- Sandra, French, admits she’s never 100% sure about [the concept of] comfort food and comfort eating, but tells me that homemade brambleberry jam is always sure to put a smile on her face, as is any recipe where Dijon mustard features centrally.
And here comes the reasoning. Based on the research referenced below, comfort food can be divided into four groups:
- Nostalgic foods (foods that remind you of a specific person, of childhood or of a happy situation)
- Indulgence foods (treats)
- Convenience foods (easy to prepare, ready-made foods)
- Physical comfort foods (warming foods, filling foods perhaps)
Eating comfort food is, as the name implies, linked to emotions, but what is classed as comfort food depends on factors as diverse as one’s country, sex or age:
- comfort food would appear to alleviate Americans’ loneliness
- comfort food would appear to be used by men to pamper or spoil themselves as a reward for success
- comfort food would appear to be used by women to spoil themselves as a breather (less work and cleaning), but also to cure loneliness and depression
So, men would eat comfort food when feeling up and women when feeling down. And men and women would reach for different foods: hearty meals and sweet treats respectively. Young people would opt for snacks.
Common traits in comfort foods
- mouthfeel: soft, smooth texture (comforting and nurturing)
- temperature: warmth (that can alleviate or soothe loneliness)
- taste: sweet and salty (we don’t tend to like sour/bitter flavours as children so that would not be comfort food)
A good example of comfort food stemming from childhood would be the heavenly warm and beautifully soft cream (papas) that my mother made with flour and milk (and cinnamon?) when we had a bad throat.
So, there you go, translate all the above into a short sentence to summarise comfort food in your language. Bonne chance! Italian translator Giulia Carletti is sceptical of your chances. See what she says: Comfort food and translator’s despair.
You gave up? No worries, it’s what the translators and publishers of Jamie Oliver’s Comfort Food cookbook into Spanish, Italian and French did. I imagine they explained the concept in the book’s introduction, yet, I can’t help but think they missed out on an opportunity to use an idiomatic expression that would dig dipper in the hearts and stomachs of foreign eaters.
It is, of course, possible the publishers chose to retain the original title as a unifying branding strategy. That is a benefit, clearly, particularly as Jamie’s TV programmes have been subtitled or dubbed in many countries. On the other hand, why use a term you have to be explaining years later (see next section); it’s like a joke that you have to explain. Although Spaniards use the word “confort” to mean material wellbeing or comfort, for example, to talk about a house, we don’t immediately associate it with mental or emotional wellbeing, or food.
But who came first, the chicken or the egg?
Did Oliver’s Comfort Food (2014) set a food trend abroad or had the term already been imported? Truth is that I started reading regularly about food and food trends after completing my dissertation in cookbook translation in 2018, before I spent my time reading about other social and cultural topics for my high school Spanish teaching. So I did some research.
Take this article from Spanish Vogue: ¿Qué es la ‘comfort food’ y dónde comerla? (2018). It is 2018 and we are still explaining what comfort food is while giving suggestions of restaurants where to eat it. The photos depict some Spanish comfort foods, based on the concept of authentic food with no gimmicks. If, in this case, they are depicting real Spanish food rather than foreign food, why use the foreign term when you could use a Spanish equivalent? It’d be harder with Jamie’s book, because the foods aren’t exactly what your Spanish grandmother cooked.
This article from PuntoQPack, entitled “Comfort food, un nuevo concepto en restauración” (2018), talks of “a new concept in the world of restaurants” and features the dishes in a chain of restaurants, mainly Spanish tapas, interestingly, tagged as “fast food”. Sounds like the concept was appropriated by restaurants for marketing purposes to promote traditional food which, before, might have sounded as run of the mill or outdated.
However, this definition of comfort food by newspaper A Republica (winding back to 2009), talks of “la revalorización de la cocina casera, los sabores tradicionales, una corriente que está cada vez más presente en las cocinas profesionales” (the new appreciation for homemade food and traditional flavours, a trend that is ever more present in our professional kitchens) and gives the example of some restaurants who are bringing back traditional food. This is five years before Jamie’s cookbook and reminds me of the economic crisis of 2008 and how comfort food always returns in times of war or crisis, like Covid and sourdough baking.
Yet, it is odd to promote authentic food under a foreign name. In the case of Oliver’s book, it is foreign cuisine, but the question remains, why not use a term that gets straight to our souls if we’re talking about food that warms the cockles of our heart? Do we need a foreign name to reinvent ourselves? Can we not just be ourselves?
Finally and to the point, it is interesting to see A Republica critisising the examples of Spanish comfort foods given by Wikipedia, which reminds us that comfort food is not that easy to pin down.
Did you enjoy this article? Did you find it useful? Did you learn anything? Then why not share your appreciation and interest by sharing it, liking it, and taking part in the conversation? My invitation remains open.
Reverso.Context, Retrieved from comfort food – Translation into Spanish – examples English | Reverso Context on 17/08/2021
Spence, Ch. (2017), Comfort Food: A review, International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science (9), pp. 105-109, retrieved from Comfort food: A review – ScienceDirect
Wikipedia, Comfort Food, retrieved from Comfort food – Wikipedia on 17/8/2021
And if you enjoyed the topic, you can listen to restaurant critic Grace Dent’s Comfort Eating podcasts, where she interviews famous people. I really enjoyed her chat with Krishnam Gury-Murthy’s, TV presenter.