When the recession hit, you could hear the words buzzing from the cell phones of every restaurant consultant in America: "It's time for comfort food." But under the mashed potatoes and meatloaf lies a question: What does "comfort food" really mean? What about it actually comforts us?  
 
Let's look at some big-time comfort foods: Fried chicken. French fries. Chocolate cake. When people talk about comfort food, the obvious explanation is that it's all about nostalgia and missing Mommy. But that's also cultural. Look at lutefisk, natto and the reddish-black blood sausage I was served once by a sad Belgian who took comfort in what struck me as something you might see in a hospital. And really, it takes more than this to create the rush of sensations that make us feel safe, calm, and cared for. It's a complex interplay of memory, history, and brain chemistry, and while some basics apply — most of us are soothed by the soft, sweet, smooth, salty and unctuous — the specifics are highly personal.