Comfort: the Essential Ingredient

RIGHT NOW, A bag of potatoes in my pantry whispers, in a voice as smooth and deep as Barry White’s, “Don’t stress about the oil bill, baby girl. Cook us up some of that soup like you do.” I catch a wave of endorphins and run to the kitchen to start making potato leek soup. Comfort food, coming right up.

A recent round of pithy blog posts and articles based on a study reported by Health Psychology claimed that comfort food is a lie. The study involved observing whether moods were positively affected when people were fed their favorite comfort food after they watched twenty minutes of a sad video. Basically, researchers found that time, not comfort food, healed sadness. In other news: Children, there is no Santa Claus.

Never mind that this study was too small, or was based on artificial melancholy—real sorrow doesn’t come with a schmaltzy soundtrack and preemptive box of tissues. I can’t wrap my mind around why anyone would do such a study.  Even if the purpose was to make the point that bingeing on chocolate or chicken pot pie is unhealthy, it’s just narrow and mean to write the words “comfort” and that other word that begins with “l” and ends with “ie” in the same sentence. Anyone who says comfort—comfort of any kind—is a lie hasn’t truly suffered.

I had an acting teacher in the early ’80s who told students “comfort is an illusion.” Later I learned that she borrowed this from the Marine Corps. She was right, in that audiences get bored when performers stay in their comfort zones. But beyond performing and boot camp, the phrase has no legs. Soothing pain and suffering are an impossible, messy endeavor but one that is nevertheless catnip for the human soul. If art is making order from chaos, then providing comfort is certainly an art. And if I’m an artist, my masterpiece is soup.

I moved upstate to New York’s Catskills with my husband and daughter. There is much to love about life in the Catskills. A bear wheeled my garbage down the driveway a couple of weeks ago. He looked like he was rehearsing a circus act. But what I love most here are my friends. They are expressive, blatantly weird, and raw. Most of us are refugees who remember what it was like to be middle class but traded class for the country. Winter is hard and expensive here in upstate New York. When winter comes we are, like the Holly Near song, “gentle, angry people.”  When conditions are brutal, nothing quite nourishes the gentle or soothes an angry people like a nice, hot soup.

I’m not going to be coy about this: I make the best potato leek soup in the history of potato leek soup. I will share the recipe here, but unless you first read about everything that goes into making it, you will just be creating shadow soup.

The recipe started with Al. He owned a produce stand on Route 28 with tons of signs declaring the produce “local” and “organic.”  The “local” produce defied seasonality, as if Al had a magic patch in the Catskills that grew cucumbers in early June. His “organic” produce was suspiciously robust too. But I wasn’t about to call him out because Al had been kind to me, actively cheering my own endeavor. At one time I ran a tiny café a short drive from his produce stand. I needed to visit Al’s stand every other day because I had so little refrigerator space. Some of Al’s signage might have been a tad misleading, but his produce was still way better than the local market’s.

We got friendly over something my landlord’s adult son said. My café overlooked the Ashokan Reservoir, a location as close to god and as far from customers as one could get. I fell in love with the spot—never a good idea in business. We hustled to bring customers from afar by hosting music events. Nevertheless, we were occasionally late with rent. I guess my landlord recruited her son as some sort of enforcer because when we were late on rent he inevitably phoned to harass us with lectures on how we weren’t working hard enough to improve our business. “You got soup?” Al asked one time. “Yeah, I got soup.” “You gotta have soup,” he said, “even though it’s a loss leader.”

Loss leader is something you sell at cost or at a loss because you know it will bring in more customers, customers who will buy additional items for a greater overall profit. Thing is, it’s actually really hard not to make money on soup. Al enjoyed the loss leader story, and it became a running joke with us. He gave me a basket of leeks that were a little brown and wilted. “I can’t sell them, and I know you’ll make some of that good loss leader there with them—know what I mean?” I peeled away the brown parts and roasted the leeks in a little grape seed oil. You can’t make this soup without honoring the source of your ingredients. Thank you leeks. Thank you Al.

Al continued to give me ever-increasing amounts of throwaways as summer turned to fall. I hit the jackpot when he closed down for the season in late November. He gave me bushels of tired carrots, sprouted garlic, and shriveled celery root. Al also gave me a ton of white potatoes rimmed in bright green skins.  To successfully provide comfort, or comforting soup, one has to believe all is never lost.  Root veggies, kind of like root music, can almost always be revived to good effect. I roasted the garlic, carrots, and celery root in olive oil until they were tinged with a bit of char, and then pureed them. I cooked the puree on low heat until it reduced to a paste. I finished off with a good salt and used it as a vegetable stock.

Green potatoes indicate increased levels of solanine, a naturally occurring toxin in nightshade vegetables.  The nasty is closest to the potato’s skin, so rather than peel them I cut away the skins with wide margins, boiling the resulting cubes. Before pureeing the potato cubes, I let them cool. Starch becomes more resistant, less apt to immediately convert to sugar in your body, if it’s cooled after heating. This makes the soup a longer lasting fuel for the weak and weary. No one eating this soup will know about this step—only you can know if your intention is pure.

There was a time when this would have been the point where I would have added spices, the base, water, and then poured in heavy cream. That was before John. Ellie and John weren’t just customers, they were ambience gold. They were critical threads in the fabric that was my joyful little café. Everyone laughed more heartily when they were around. One morning John told me he was being treated for cancer and wanted to cut back on meat, fats, salt, sugar, “you know…. all that good stuff.” That’s when I decided I prefer potato leek soup without cream.

During his chemo, I expected John to go missing for a stretch—hospitalizations, days of unmovable weakness or nausea, but he scarcely missed a day. The deeper he got into treatment the more excited I got when I saw him. Providing comfort is an exchange. The soother is soothed and the comforted is empowered by the gift of his vulnerability. That’s how love works. If comfort food is a lie, it’s because it hasn’t been shared.

2 Tblsp grape seed oil

1 Lb leeks

Smoked salt (to taste)

1 Lb potatoes

6 cups vegetable stock

1 Tsp white pepper

2 Tsp dry sherry


About Barbara Mansfield

Barbara Mansfield is currently writing a middle-grade fiction/recipe book with husband Phil Mansfield, a food and lifestyle photographer (Bloomsbury, Wiley). She recently completed the second edition of an illustrated book called Grumpy Fish Aid: Comfort Tips from Kids With Cancer. The first edition of Grumpy Fish was distributed to pediatric oncology centers in four states.
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4 Responses to Comfort: the Essential Ingredient

  1. Ahhhhhhh…. Babs! I have been looking at this bag of potatoes for days… Thinking, all you need is Some LEEEEKS! And then Chogyi, who has taken to eating tot-hash discovered (after long time of me telling him real potatoes can make better hash, he tried it… And the potatoes have dwindled, and I will have to get some potatoes when I get those Leeks… But I just may today… Because Potatoes and Leeks go a long way when the purse strings are tight!

    Thank you for the yummy love you always share!

  2. Ruth says:

    Salivating and kvelling in tandem. As my Mother always says, “Food is love.”

  3. Penny says:

    Great article, Babs. It got me feeling a little nostalgic

  4. KELLY says:

    Love, thank you, Babs. Time to make soup.

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