Economies of comfort

Turkish brunch, kokomlemle style

Everyone has them: the foods that reliably transport them to a place of cozy wellbeing, of warmth and solace, perhaps of maternal care—comfort foods. For me, there are scales of comfort. My Bubbe’s chicken soup and chopped liver, my mother’s thoroughly satisfying rendition of brisket, are on the level of the rarified and sacred, but not exclusively ‘mine.’


Fried meat peirogis with extra sour cream and a cherry lime ricky at Veselka’s on 2nd Ave, my nostalgia-tinged college standby, has taken on the cast of a deeply personal holy pilgrimage of the belly now that I no longer live in New York–but is about as rarified as it gets, when I’m thousands of miles away. At another scale entirely, a loaf of crusty bread, a tomato, and some good cheese reliably transports me to carefree summertime picnics.

But when you are so far outside of the context that birthed your habits and tastes that indulging in them becomes difficult, if not impossible, the notion of comfort foods shakes out on a different scale altogether. My roommate in grad school once told me her father hated traveling for business because he never felt full—there was never quite enough rice. It wasn’t that he missed the full spectrum of the South Indian cuisine he grew up with, per se; it was mostly just that one component that was vital to his sense of gastronomic satisfaction.

Sometimes comfort isn’t at the level of a meal, it’s discernible in the form of individual ingredients. Which is why, when a fellow anthropologist friend recently called from the infrastructure-poor Upper West region of Ghana where she works to excitedly relate how she had found a store that sold honest-to-goodness butter, I got it.


What joy, what a find! Even with my own relatively greater access to butter further south, it’s a pretty rare commodity that inspires a kind of enthusiasm and relief that is hard to relate. When this same friend and I independently purchased a brick of low-grade margarine insidiously packaged in gold foil, and which informed us in French that it was ideal pour les tartines, we both felt the same huffy disappointment of having been had.

In a developing context where locating ‘familiar’ foods often requires shopping at upscale foreign grocers or otherwise paying hefty import duties, it’s easy for the globally ‘Northern’ visitor to get tangled in questions of privilege and guilt and responsibility. In seeking out gastronomic comforts, one is forced to confront the privilege to seek certain kinds of comfort in the first place, and discomfort in the knowledge that what provides comfort and pleasure for me is an item priced beyond the reach of the average Ghanaian. How dare I blather about my own material and gastronomic comforts, how dare I shore up demand for expensive imports in the first place, when so many people are incredibly food insecure and the systems of trade and distribution that could solve the problem so hopelessly tangled?


There are a few responses to this, above and beyond acknowledging the complexities of the situation. The first is the somewhat obvious–but troublingly overlooked–fact in discussions of food and ‘Africa-the-country’: just because what gives me pleasure is too expensive for many Ghanaians, this in no way suggests that most Ghanaians are too poor to afford pleasures and comforts, gastronomic or otherwise. The abundance of (important) global discourse around Africa and food insecurity typically overshadows local understandings and discussions of food and choice and pleasure. (e.g., Ghanaian cuisine is varied and delicious and has gotten along fine without using butter for centuries, thanks very much.) These are just as abundant and important—get a group of Ghanaians of any class talking about fufu with light soup and you’ll see what I mean—they’re just rarely heard on platforms beyond the local.


The same false dichotomies exist in many post-Industrial countries; of late in the US, discussions of food and pleasure—or the experience of food and eating, period—are seen as the exclusive domain of the hipster bourgeoisie (hi there), while conversations about food and those labeled ‘poor’ (oh hey, poor grad student, hi again) are invariably limited to policy discussions of welfare and food stamps. What right have the poor to complain about how shitty ‘government cheese’ tastes, after all? The problem lies in denying segments of the population the right to food and to finding pleasure in food, not the act of enjoying it in the first place.

A second response to this situation, tied to the first, is that guilt is of very little use here.

For all my tendency to tie myself up in knots about this, denying myself the ingredients and foods that bring me comfort in the midst of fieldwork doesn’t do much to change the inequalities that makes me uncomfortable in the first place. This is not to say that there aren’t myriad troubling aspects to the systems of trade and distribution that regulate the movement of goods in Ghana and beyond. But occasionally indulging in the (relatively expensive, but ethically pretty neutral) foods that make me feel good not only usefully reminds me of the reciprocal relationship between privilege and obligation, it makes me feel more full and whole to go out and do my research. (Granted, that research might not do a jot to dismantle inequalities either, but that’s a tale for another day.)

So on the day that my friend called full of enthusiasm to tell me she’d hit the comfort ingredient jackpot, I decided to make myself brown butter pasta with zucchini and mushrooms. It was pretty darn good, but you know what? It could have used more butter.


Coda: Incidentally that friend and anthropological comrade-in-arms-and-brains has her own amazing blog where she writes about fieldwork in Ghana with serious verve–far better than I do, especially on the question of food insecurity globally. I recommend you check her words out here. I owe a lot to ever-evolving discussions with her about all this, as well as to an excellent conversation in the midst of the bustle of Makola market with Sarah, whose lovely and nuanced blog I’ve loved for ages now. Three cheers for smart ladies thinking and eating in solidarity.

In the interest of cluttering the interwebs with simple recipes: comforting brown butter zucchini pasta after the jump.


3 cloves garlic, minced
4 or 5 dried oyster mushrooms, finely chopped
Half a large zucchini (about 1 cup), chopped
Optional: 1 serving shrimp

2 tbs butter
Glug of white wine
Salt and pepper to taste

One serving of your favorite pasta

Put salted water* on to boil and add your pasta when appropriate.

Brown the butter (let it melt and then get slightly darker and deliciously nutty smelling on a low flame.)

Toss in garlic and mushrooms until they’re super aromatic and caramelized.

Pour in the glug of white wine to get all the delicious caramelization off the bottom of the pan and onto what’s in the pan. If using shrimp, add them and kick the heat up to med, flipping them to cook on both sides. When they’re mostly done, throw in the zucchini, add salt and pepper to taste, toss to coat everything in all the delicious goodness that’s been accumulating in the pan, and cover to let the zucchini cook. I’m bad at guestimating these things, but 5-7 minutes ought to do it. Depends on how much snap you like your cooked zucchini to retain.

Toss the contents of the pan with your drained pasta and enjoy. In my case I decided to brown a little more butter to pour over top because the sauce didn’t quite cut it, but I also used less than a full 2 tbs initially.

*I usually use tap water and wait for 3 min of solid boiling before adding my starch. Using sachet water, as I’ve noticed many middle class Ghanaians do when cooking anything where the water will be absorbed into the food, feels wasteful to me. I’m not trying to sound self-righteous here; this could be a post and/or conversation in its own right.


2 thoughts on “Economies of comfort

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, and I hope you’ll accept a bit of a tangential ramble…

    (Please write the post about water! I have a lot to say on the subject!)

    Are there food subsidies at all, of any sort?

    In Mexico, rural communities have subsidized government stores, and there are several conditional cash transfer programs for students, mothers, and the elderly that all provide a “canasta básica” (basic basket). In both cases, what’s available depends heavily on (urban) nutritional guidelines rather than a recognition of what people are used to eating and know how to cook. An additional limitation is that the trucks aren’t refrigerated so they can’t really bring anything fresh.

    For example, calcium is a problem … and people already eat cheese, but they can’t really bring that. So instead they bring milk – you know, the irradiated kind in the magic hermetically sealed cardboard boxes that can be unrefrigerated for 6 months – but which isn’t actually part of most folks’ diets, and just handing it out doesn’t necessarily lead to regular consumption.

    I wonder what a good compromise looks like.

  2. I just wanted to chime in and agree from another fieldsite. Five months into my fieldwork year in Puebla, Mexico, I am repeatedly struck by the relationship between comfort and convenience when it comes to food. Puebla is a gastronomic mecca in Mexico, with multiple types of mole, tacos árabes, and chiles en nogada being only a few of the decadent dishes you can try. Rather than importing things like papaya, produce is grown locally and tastes unbelievably fresh. And yet, your blog post really speaks to me. I long for baked goods (despite its famous dulces típicos) and struggle to find butter, tofu, peanut butter, and other habitual “staples” in my diet. But for me, the hardest part is cooking without an oven and only having a mini fridge (sans freezer space) to keep food fresh.

    Like you’ve found in Ghana, there are stores here where you can find specialty imports (such as a jar of peanut butter for $70 pesos), but it sharply contrasts with local livelihoods where [some] families may earn as little as 8 pesos an hour and live in homes where tarps (or nothing) covers crumbling walls. It’s even stranger here, though, because Puebla’s state capital (also called Puebla) benefits from VW and other international companies, making some families extremely rich while others work in el campo and are extremely poor. (Interestingly, regional anthropologist Oscar Lewis even called this a “culture of poverty” which is a “design for living” that gets passed down from generation to generation and includes the constant struggle for survival, unemployment and underemployment, low wages, the absence of savings, the absence of food reserves in the home, and the pattern of frequent buying of small quantities of food many times a day as the need arises.) And given local city planning, those two types of people may live next door to each other, with many, many local families from both groups eating out more than they eat at home, due to convenience and the fact that here, you can get an amazing 3-course prix fixe meal for $35 pesos (or about $2.65 USD). So clearly, this is a thick stew and it shouldn’t just be a story bemoaning inequality.

    So I second it: Outside of real, limiting structural constraints, what makes “taste”? Does it boil down to evolutionarily tasty characteristics like fat and sugar, or is it more a question of contextual experience and habit? After all, instead of eating a pint of ice cream to drown my sorrows, a local answer could be a Oaxacan hot chocolate or chilaquiles. 🙂 It’s just not ingrained in my repertoire so that it’s my go-to craving. And yet, on top of that, there are still things that simply aren’t available, and will go missed in a new place. There, it sounds like chocolate is hard to come by. Here, I can’t find lots of sauces or dips unless I go to an American WalMart in the city, and I’ve found that ultra pasteurized milk and margarine [that will keep in my modest fridge] make it much easier to mess up hard-to-mess-up mashed potatoes!

    P.S. Thanks for the amazing stovetop pasta recipe! Having a camping stovetop as my “kitchen,” I’m sure you can understand how excited I am to make it. 🙂

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