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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then Sunday Punch

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"Underneath the anguish of death and pain and ugliness are the facts of hunger and unquenchable life, shining, peaceful. It is as if our bodies, wiser than we who wear them, call out for encouragement and strength and, in spite of us and of the patterns of proper behavior we have learned, compel us to answer, and to eat."

— M.F.K. Fisher

Food to Feel Better By
When things go wrong, our hunger for comfort can be answered

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SOME YEARS AGO I was house-sitting for a friend, mostly to escape a particularly unpleasant situation with a particularly unpleasant boyfriend. My mother paid a visit to cheer me up, toting bagels, lox, sautéed bell peppers and a refreshing white burgundy from France. A far classier pick-me-up than the greasy subs we bought off a truck during college finals.

When times turn tough, many of us look to food to make us feel better. Research shows that people define comfort foods as those that bring back memories of family, childhood and connections to important people or events.

Favorites like mashed potatoes soothe souls as well as palates. Typically we crave hot, rich, thick dishes that mom made when we were young. My friend Julie longs for her mother's brisket. Patty, who grew up in Montana, would come in from the snow for her mom's fragrant crockpot stew ladled over a pile of wide egg noodles. Graciela misses her Argentinean mother's paprika chicken. After a rough day, we want to be taken care of, and these childhood favorites do the trick.

Since Sept. 11, Americans have apparently been eating more comfort food. Demand for desserts in restaurants has increased. And a Good Housekeeping survey found that one-third of women polled were cooking more classics like macaroni and cheese. The down side: 30 percent of those polled also reported gaining up to 10 pounds since Sept. 11. Not surprisingly, we crave foods that not only give pleasure but also evoke feelings of warmth and safety, when times were simpler.

In "The Art of Eating," M.F.K. Fisher describes the "mysterious appetite that often surges in us when our hearts seem about to break and our lives seem too bleakly empty." She believes that "most bereaved souls crave nourishment more tangible than prayers."

Funny how we always want someone else to prepare the food. Few people I know actually feel inspired to labor over a hot stove for that slow home-cooking when they're feeling low. It's part of the whole "take care of me" thing.

When I'm in bed with a cold, the mandatory medicine is chicken noodle soup. The canned kind doesn't cut it. It needs to be homemade, with lots of garlic. Once, shortly after getting married, I tried to show my husband how to make it, starting with boiling the chicken with seasonings, stripping the cooked meat from the bones, chopping the carrots, celery and onions, and simmering the soup over low heat. That was a nice exercise. He still hasn't made it. Now, when I'm healthy, I'll make a large batch and freeze small quantities that he can easily defrost when I'm sick.

Of course, there's always Nanna's Soup House in Ravenna, which offers nearly a dozen varieties of delicious soups and sweet, feel-good corn muffins. I also rely on places like Pasta & Co., where I can snag upscale prepared frozen concoctions like stuffed shells and beef lasagna. I keep a couple of these meals in the freezer at all times for hot, comforting dinners that require nothing more than turning on the oven.

All this is what I consider the good kind of comfort food.

Then there's the PMS pig-out of an entire bag of Oreos. Or the work stress that leads to the rapid-fire munching of a whole can of Pringles, each loaded with onion-soup dip. That's the bad kind of comfort food. When we're stressed, we usually crave sweets and fats, which may produce a temporary high but generally leave us feeling worse — more lethargic and more disillusioned with ourselves. Why is it that raw carrot sticks never seem to do the trick?

Eating to feel better, or "emotional eating," may be part of everyday life for those of us who are passionate about food, but out of hand it can lead to significant weight gain and serious health issues.

In part, we can blame biology. The chemicals in our brain influence our moods, and certain foods stimulate these chemicals. Our bodies naturally crave fat and sugar for energy. Foods like chocolate stimulate endorphins, which give that sense of euphoria and pleasure that many know and love as "runner's high."

But biology doesn't have to be destiny. Our emotional needs are equally at play here. When you're stressed or frustrated, you may crave the crunchy-salty satisfaction of tortilla chips. To get through an intense work project, you might rely on a series of Snickers bars.

"Usually it's some kind of stress that triggers cravings," says Margaret O'Leary, nutrition manager at Virginia Mason Medical Center. Her mantra? Eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full, and know the difference. That's not to say we have to give up eating for pleasure. "There's nothing wrong with making a dish of macaroni if I miss my mom, but if every time an emotion comes along I eat lots of candy bars, that can result in weight gain and health problems," O'Leary says.

Like most things, it's a question of balance. Instead of totally depriving yourself when craving chocolate ice cream, have a small amount of a quality brand. A little bit of a good thing can go a long way.

Focus on foods that bring back fond memories. Ask your parents or siblings to share favorite recipes from your childhood. I like making my mom's rice pudding with raisins and nutmeg. If you like cooking, try new things with old favorites. You'd be surprised what adding some curry powder, prosciutto or chilies to mac and cheese will do. Or add a couple of dollops of blue cheese to your next batch of mashed potatoes.

Seattle chef Kaspar Donier serves classy comfort foods like roast pork with mashed maple sweet potatoes. "Comfort foods are usually simple, good-tasting dishes that take a long time to prepare," he says.

No wonder we feel taken care of when we eat it — making it is a labor of love.

Catherine M. Allchin is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Michelle Kumata is a Seattle Times news artist.

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then Sunday Punch

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