It doesn't have its own aisle at the supermarket. It's not one of the five basic food groups. But if it were, right now it would be the most popular.
Comfort food: it means something different to all of us.
"As everybody tries to navigate this pandemic, people really reach for some things that really just provide some instant comfort," said Jeffery Temple, who is with Portland, Ore.'s Fred Meyer grocery chain.
"I don't wanna put you on the spot," asked correspondent Mo Rocca, "but have you got any Vienna sausages?"
"We do have Vienna sausages. We've got plenty of them!" Temple replied.
For his family, comfort food tends toward the spicy-salty snack food variety: "Things like, you know, Flamin' Hot Cheetos, Flamin' Hot Funyuns. BBQ Pringles are essential for my wife."
But for many, comfort food means old, familiar brands. Prego pasta sauce, Duncan Hines cake mix, and Campbell's and Progresso soups have all been flying off the shelves.
Anna Boiardi, grandniece of the Chef Boyardee, isn't surprised that sales of the canned pasta jumped 146% compared to this time last year. "I think my grandfather and my great uncle would be ecstatic to think that their food was bringing comfort to people now in a time of need," Boiardi said.
[Note to viewers: Do not confuse Chef Boyardee with Spaghetti-Os, sales of which are up 38%.]
Boiardi said the Chef Boyardee brand 92 years old. "So, it spans a lot of generations."
Including the Greatest Generation. During World War II, Chef Boyardee fed U.S. troops.
"All of those generations have this really positive, warm connection to the brand," Boiardi said.
This isn't the first time that consumers have turned to shelf-stable, affordable foods in a time of crisis.
During the 2008 recession, sales of Kool-Aid and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese spiked.
Food writer, chef and TV host Samin Nosrat thinks that the way these foods feel, literally, explains why people are turning to them now: "American cheese melts in a way, you know, like the way it melts on top of something? There's nothing else like it! That, like, plastic-y quilt of perfect orange cheese, it's so good!
"I think soft foods are really comforting, honestly," she said. "Maybe it reminds you of being a baby, I don't know!"
"It's interesting you bring up 'soft.' Because I have to tell you, I love Cool Whip," said Rocca.
"Well, I love that you're just sitting there eating it!" Nosrat laughed.
But eating processed foods out of plastic tubs doesn't equal comfort for everyone. Nosrat said, "I see a lot of baking, both sweet and savory, happening. You know, the whole world seems to be interested in making bread."
Yes, the good, old-fashioned oven is hot once again!
"One of the greatest things, I think, right now, that cooking can offer us is a little bit of an escape from our heads, and from our worries," said Nosrat. "You're forced to smell and see and taste and touch. And that gets you out of your head and into your body, which is so important right now."
"You know, it's interesting. You're drawing a distinction: There's comfort food, and then you're talking about comfort cooking," said Rocca.
"Yeah. And I do think, for me, and I hope for other people, that it's also something that we can derive pleasure from."
There is no one recipe for comfort food. It's whatever floats your gravy boat.
"I actually find vegetables to be really comforting," Nosrat laughed. "But that's not what I'm hearing people are being drawn to. Because if there's other hardship and other anxiety, you just want that thing that's gonna make you feel like a warm hug. And, for a lot of people, that's not, like, a spinach salad, yeah!"
For more info:
- Food writer, chef and TV Host Samin Nosrat
- "Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking" by Samin Nosrat; Illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton (Simon & Schuster), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon
- "Salt Fat Acid Heat" (Netflix series)
- Fred Meyer, Portland, Ore.
- "Delicious Memories: Recipes and Stories from the Chef Boyardee Family" by Anna Boiardi and Stephanie Lyness (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Carol Ross.