Not Like Mama Used to Make: Vegetarians and Vegans Redefine “Comfort Food”
In today’s health-conscious society, more people are adopting healthier eating habits, from cutting processed foods to reducing red meat intake. This can be a difficult feat in the heart of winter when the dinner table often overflows with heavy, meaty meals that warm bodies and comfort souls. Where does that leave those who assume a completely meat-free lifestyle? Can they still find comfort in food when so many foods are off-limits?
The phrase “comfort food” can typically be described as a food that soothes your emotions like a hug from a loved one. It can warm you up like a cozy sweater. It can bring you solace like your favorite blanket. But each individual has his or her own idea of what constitutes a comfort food.
“Comfort food to me describes food that makes me nostalgic for my childhood,” says Beth Soltis of Orland Park, Illinois. “To me, these foods are warming, and mostly foods my mom would have made in the colder months as opposed to summer BBQ type foods.” Her old favorites include hearty, meat-laden beef stew and lasagna.
Marian Glenn of Lombard, Illinois, agrees that her comfort foods take her back to her childhood, but she adds that those foods also remind her of her Sicilian and Eastern European roots, with meaty pasta dishes and meat-and-potatoes topping her feel-good food list.
Culture does play an important role in the foods we eat, especially when living somewhere outside of our native region. Whether we do not want to forget where we came from, or we simply miss our old surroundings, we tend to bask in the comfort of foods from “back home.”
Nada El Barshoumi, an Egyptian born and raised in Bahrain, is a vegan food blogger who has been a vegan for two and a half years now. She says her “comfort foods were most definitely all the dishes my mother used to cook for us kids — traditional Egyptian dishes like molokheya (a green soup of sorts, made with broth and jute leaves), mahshi (stuffed cabbage, baby marrow [zucchini], or vine [grape] leaves), koshary, … and even vegetable stews like fasolia (green beans) or bamia (okra), which are typically made in a tomato sauce and served over white rice with vermicelli.”
The foods Jessica Johnson of Downers Grove, Illinois, finds comfort in are those that reflect her Mexican heritage. Much of her childhood was spent with her grandmother, who loves to cook. Johnson’s picks include her grandmother’s sopa de arroz (rice made with chicken broth and tomato sauce) and homemade flour tortillas, fresh beans, and cheese.
Sometimes our source of succor has nothing to do with our memories or culture. Gina Alm from Buffalo, New York, states, “Comfort food is something that makes me feel good when I’m feeling gloomy.” Prior to becoming a vegetarian four years ago, Alm took comfort in the spicy flavors of chili and the sweet taste of General Tso’s chicken.
Glenn adopted a vegetarian lifestyle ten months ago after blood work showed she had extremely high cholesterol. “I’m not overweight, so I always thought I was healthy. But this made me realize I actually wasn’t.” Glenn says, “I decided to revamp my diet and try eliminating meat.”
Since implementing her new diet, Glenn has improved her cholesterol. “But most importantly,” she adds, “my meals aren’t as ‘meat-centric,’ which allows me to focus more on healthier options, like vegetables and whole grains.”
Glenn brings up a good point: when choosing a diet that is exclusive of certain foods, it is crucial to ensure you are still obtaining all of the nutrients your body needs to thrive.
Sophie Jenkins from London, United Kingdom, spent much of her youth with a vegetarian mother, so meat was hardly a part of her diet growing up. “Then when I became Muslim,” Jenkins says, “I lived in an area with no halal meat available, so I became vegetarian out of necessity.” Illnesses possibly related to a cow’s milk intolerance led Jenkins to go strictly vegan a year ago. Since then, Jenkins, who spent much of 2012 fighting off one bout of tonsillitis after another, says, “I haven’t had a single proper sore throat since December 2012, let alone anything more serious.”
Whether for health reasons or others, embracing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle has become increasingly more common in the last several years. A 2008 study by Vegetarian Times showed that 3.2 percent of US adults follow a vegetarian-based diet. Of those 7.3 million people, about 1 million are vegan. With the growing variety of vegan products available in supermarkets, those numbers have surely grown in the last five years.
For those who consider comfort foods to be meals eaten in childhood, newer subscribers to plant-based diets can find themselves redefining what makes them content.
As a vegan for nine years, what does Soltis now consider a suitable beef stew replacement? “I get the same comfort vibe from soup,” she says. “Lentil soup is my favorite!” Glenn, too, says that soups and stews have become her new cold-weather cuisine of choice. “They are warm and delicious and make me feel cozy!” She is also interested in trying various risottos with vegetables and experimenting with quinoa, a protein-rich whole grain.
Johnson, who has been a vegetarian for three and a half years, has traded her south-of-the-border favorites for those of south Asia. “I eat a lot of Indian food since becoming a vegetarian,” Johnson states. “That is becoming a new comfort food for me.”
For El Barshoumi, comfort foods have not changed as dramatically as they have for others. One favorite she mentioned, koshary, is already vegan. A mix of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, and tomato sauce, it is considered one of Egypt’s staple street foods. For those dishes not traditionally vegan, El Barshoumi recreates them by giving them a healthier, vegan twist. “For example,” she explains, “I substitute white rice for millet or quinoa, which tastes great in stuffed vegetables.” She calls these spins a success because they have the same richness and flavor as her old favorites, “but pack a better nutritional punch,” making her feel better about what she is eating.
Sue Amr of Marion, Iowa, has been a vegetarian for over forty years. Unlike most people, her reason for going meatless has nothing to do with health benefits or animal welfare. Amr simply does not like the taste or texture of meat. A lover of rice and vegetables, she often ate the same dishes growing up as the rest of her family, just without eating the meat. She has carried that on with her husband and children, cooking meat dishes for them but leaving the meat out for herself.
And then there are people like Samer Abbas of Chicago, Illinois, who says he had never really believed in comfort food, calling the concept “a bit alien” to him. “I’ve never seen food as comfort,” says Abbas, a vegan for three years. Since adopting a vegan diet, however, he now considers chili comfort food. “It helps me deal with the winter, and the vegan option tastes even better than the meat option.”
Doing what you feel is best sometimes means making sacrifices. In the world of food, special diets often require relinquishing what was once relished. Vegetarians and vegans may be satisfied with their decision to steer clear of animal flesh and by-products, but they may not receive the same satisfaction from their new comfort foods as they did from their old ones. New comfort foods may be suitable replacements for old, but the memories associated with those dishes from the past are irreplaceable.
Soltis admits, “I definitely miss my mom’s lasagna,” while Glenn confesses, “I miss a big, juicy steak with sautéed mushrooms and potatoes!” El Barshoumi says, “The one thing I will say I do miss is molokheya; I haven’t been able to make a vegan version that’s just as good as the original — but I’m working on it.”
Even Amr, a vegetarian since the young age of 10, concedes, like a true Palestinian, “Macluba (rice, cauliflower, chicken upside-down dish) would be a missed comfort food, even though I did not eat the meat in it. And it is not so much as the taste, it’s the family gathering, anticipating the meal as it is unmolded. You just don’t get that reaction from a vegetarian macluba.”
With healthier food options readily available in supermarkets, the younger generation of vegetarians and vegans can easily raise their future children on their new foods if they choose. This gives the next generation a lighter, healthier version of feel-good foods that will also provide them with nostalgia. In the meantime, those avoiding any or all meat products can continue to console themselves in the dead of winter with their veggie spins.
Remember, whatever diet you follow, “…eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess” (Quran 7:31).