Friends and regular Bulletin readers will already be aware of my obsession with comfort foods. Almost all of my favorite foods fall into that category: frites, potato chips, bacon, shepherd’s pie, Monte Cristo sandwiches, cheese, peanut butter pie and pretty much anything fried. So a few weeks ago, when I got a call from my friend, brewer Brian Hunt from Moonlight Brewing, I was especially susceptible to an idea he had that craft beer, too, should be considered a comfort food in its own right. I loved the notion immediately and we got together to talk about the idea over a few pints of comfort beer. The result of those discussions — plus some more research and conversations — was a feature I wrote that was just published online at the Brewer’s Association’s new CraftBeer.com, entitled Is Beer Comfort Food?
As a word nerd, I was fascinated to discover that the phrase is actually a fairly modern one, though there’s some disagreement as to its actual origin. The first use of the phrase appears to be in 1966, though it was an isolated occurrence and did not catch on at that time.
In “The Thin Book,” a 1966 work by ‘”a formerly fat psychiatrist’” named Theodore Isaac Rubin. The book’s ad copy read, ‘”Learn about ammunition foods, comfort foods and emergency foods.’” Reached in New York, Dr. Rubin recalls: ‘”I just made it up; I didn’t hear it anywhere. It means food that makes you feel good, that was always available and would help to sustain a diet.’” (“Ammunition foods” never made it into the canon.)
Likewise, Liza Minnelli (and I assume that yes, it was that Liza Minnelli) used the term in “Dieting Is All Well and Good— But Give Me ‘Comfort Food’!”, a piece she co-wrote with Helen Dorsey for Pennsylvania’s “Clearfield Progress’” Family Weekly section in July of 1972. That’s most likely why Wikipedia incorrectly identifies its origin as 1972.
But it appears to be in the latter half of the 1970s that the concept of comfort food began to catch on. The Merrian-Webster Dictionary lists its first use as 1977, making it roughly the same age as craft beer itself. Merriam-Webster added it to their dictionary the same year, although it wasn’t listed in the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary until 1997.
In the May 1978 issue of Bon Appétit, an article entitled M.F.K. Fisher on Comfort Foods appeared, somewhat solidifying the term, though some point to a March 1985 column by New York Times food writer Marian Burros, “Turning to Food For Solace.” William Safire credits her for popularizing the term, writing in 2003:
Burros was largely responsible for the term’s popularization. In a 1985 Times column titled ‘”Turning to Food for Solace,’” she wrote that the restaurateur George Lang, owner of New York’s Café des Artistes, “said his comfort foods ‘are foods I can eat any time, whether I’m full or not…. Comfort foods are the perfect tranquilizer.'” Lang said, ‘’My whole childhood is brought back with goose liver,” and the sophisticated food columnist revealed her own nostalgia for spaghetti and meat sauce or a tuna-fish sandwich.
Word expert Barry Popik disagrees and in his blog The Big Apple has undoubtedly the best account of the various claims to the term’s origins.
But back to the original question, is beer a comfort food? Brian Hunt and I think so, and so did several other brewers I spoke to. To find out why we think so, check out Is Beer Comfort Food? on CraftBeer.com.