When I started my PhD, a kind mentor advised me to cope with graduate school’s stresses by eating chocolate and watching lots of TV. I received the same guidance when starting a tenure track position, though the recommendation escalated to watching TV in a (forgivable and deserved) prostrate position. This is survival advice for everyone, not just academics, evident in how pop culture writers have recommended roundups of feel-good shows for years (like this, this, and this), though with a significant uptick following the 2016 election. Pleasure and pain, community and loneliness coexist at the crossroads of comfort food and comfort TV.
Comfort TV could be “prestige TV” or “quality TV,” something like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, West Wing, Game of Thrones, or House of Cards. But it’s more likely not from a Golden Age of Television. It’s not always what’s winning awards or landing on every critic’s list. It’s TV you’ve already seen, that you’re watching again, from start to finish, perhaps for a second or third or sixth time, because it feels good. It’s Gilmore Girls and The Golden Girls. It’s Grey’s Anatomy, yes, all fourteen seasons, on Netflix. Or The Office. Or Parks and Recreation. Or Friday Night Lights. Or even Friends, despite its (many) problems. Somehow, it’s also Law & Order: SVU, because for all its disturbing details, the characters feel like home and the rhythms of a police procedural are as predictable and reassuring as a healthy heartbeat. Of course there’s The Great British Bake Off, which deserves its own essay, and all of HGTV.
The comfort in comfort TV isn’t defined by genre or subject matter, but by the feeling and relatively cheap luxury of prolonged viewing. It comes from purposeful binge watching and how streaming platforms have made that possible, in the way that show seasons on DVD first broached.1 The best of comfort TV has multiple seasons available, dozens upon dozens of episodes, so you can dive into its world and not worry about having to come up for air. Comfort TV won’t forsake you, at least not for a while. It’s why shows like Nailed It are profoundly pleasurable, but too fleeting. An animated show like Bob’s Burgers, however — in its ninth season and featuring a punny hamburger special in every episode — provides the perfect space to ruminate if and how comfort TV works through the logics of comfort food.
Merriam-Webster (the “political shade queen” dictionary) defines comfort food as “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” Just like with comfort TV, the joy lies in memories and repetition. Simple and familiar, comfort food is also defined by nutritional characteristics like plenty of calories, most notably from carbs. Mac and cheese, French fries, mashed potatoes, and chips galore typically top lists of comfort food fare.
While comfort food makes us feel good, this nutritional (and adjudicating) framing has always been part of it. In 1966, the Palm Beach Post purportedly first used the phrase in a story on obesity, which read, “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’ — food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.”2
Researchers publishing in Food and Foodways categorized comfort food into four types — nostalgic, indulgent, convenient, and providing physical comfort — which reveal the multiple definitions of comfort food and their points of overlap.3 From a psychological perspective, researchers trace comfort food’s appeal — the literal and symbolic reasoning behind “chicken soup is good for the soul” — to distinctly social and familial roots.4 It’s about belonging and loneliness.
When we eat our comfort foods, we feel connected to our family, our friends, our networks, even if we’re alone or sad or tired. This is why Grandma’s labor-and-time-intensive biscuits and dump-stir-and-microwave mug cake are both comfort food. They each combine gradated deliciousness with a variable and complicated mix of nostalgia, convenience, indulgence, and community alongside emotions like isolation, frustration, or exhaustion.
As these various origins and definitions indicate, comfort food and comfort TV both implicitly engage discussions of quality and taste. Its fans navigate the rules of what counts as “good” food and “good” TV, as they question who has the power to judge it so. The notion of comfort reveals the fascinating contradictions that result when we consume what simply feels good, whether it’s fried bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread or season after season of The Bachelor.
These sometimes oddly delicious comforts also express deeper yearnings for security and care. We talk, write, worry, and critique self-care often these days. But comfort food and comfort TV evoke a distinctly familiar sense of being cared for by others rather than by ourselves, alone. This is comfort food prepared by those dear to us; perhaps actual mothers, fathers, grandparents, and close friends who have cooked for, fed, and nurtured us. It’s the opposite of a self-gifted mani-pedi.
In the case of comfort TV, these others are an imagined social world created between us as viewers and the characters within the shows. These bonds explain the sense of loss we sometimes experience when we finish a long run of a program, ending our regular relationship through the screen, whether it be with Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang, Tami and Eric Taylor, Chip and Joanna Gaines, or Ross and Rachel.
This semester, I’m again sharing with my students how mass culture critics bemoaned popular forms like television as stupefying, mind-numbing, morally bankrupt, and derisively formulaic. The same critiques are often lodged against industrialized versions of comfort food like “blue box” Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or McDonald’s fries. But more benign views of mass culture acknowledge it as dynamic public fantasy, a collective dream world, one in which we partake alone-together and together-alone in a form of escapism that is still socially productive. That feeling — of familiarity, closeness, ease, and comfort — can be found in a homemade casserole, in the bottom of a bag of Doritos, or in eight straight episodes of House Hunters.
- Matthew Pittman, Kim Sheehan, “Sprinting a Media Marathon: Uses and Gratifications of Binge-Watching Television through Netflix,” First Monday 20, no. 10 (2015). DOI: https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i10.6138 Return to text.
- Cited in Cari Romm, “Why Comfort Food Comforts,” The Atlantic, April 3, 2015. Return to text.
- Julie L. Locher, William C. Yoels, Donna Maurer and Jillian van Ells, “Comfort Foods: An Exploratory Journey Into The Social and Emotional Significance of Food,” Food and Foodways 13, no. 4 (2005): 273-297. Return to text.
- Jordan D. Troisi and Shira Gabriel, “Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul: ‘Comfort Food’ Fulfills the Need to Belong,” Psychological Science, 22, no. 6 (2011): 747–753; Jordan D.Troisi, Shira Gabriel, Jaye L. Derrick, and Alyssa Geisler, “Threatened Belonging and Preference for Comfort Food Among the Securely Attached,” Appetite 90, no. 1 (2015): 58-64. Return to text.