Everything about comfort food – its subjectivity and its power to summon nostalgia – is perfectly expressed by the Pixar film Ratatouille.
In the pivotal scene of the film, vindictive restaurant megacritic Anton Ego decides to re-review a famous restaurant he once publicly shamed with a scathing critique after hype begins to build around its food once again.
The kitchen, run by rat-chef Remy, serves Ego a high-brow version of the country’s classic vegetable dish, ratatouille. His first bite arrests him where he sits; his eyes bulge, and through them the viewer travels back in time with him to his childhood, where we see Ego as a boy standing in the doorway of his mother’s quaint cottage, eyes on the verge of tears, broken bicycle wheel spinning on the ground and a graze on his knee, in golden magic-hour light as the sun sets over a lush countryside. His mother invites him to the table, and from a copper pot serves him her homemade ratatouille, which immediately brings a smile to the boy’s face.
In a single flash of memory, everything that comfort food can conjure comes rushing back to him. He drops his pen to the ground and digs ravenously into the dish, forgetting the review and his purpose, lost in the taste and joy of ratatouille.
As the film aptly shows, comfort food isn’t universal, since its very nature is rooted in place and personhood, culture, childhood, and time. Comfort food for a New York native like me is different from that for a Parisian, Brit, and Californian. Even in our globalised food culture, we grow up locally – although there does seem to be something in the genetics of human beings that makes us all love mac ‘n’ cheese.
Thus, for people living on special diets, the loss of gluten or dairy may or may not mean a loss of comfort food indulgences, depending on where you’re from (ratatouille, for instance, would still be totally kosher).
For me, the loss of pizza and bagels has been the greatest blow to my experience of comfort food, and I’ve strived in times of distress to discover something that gives me that yummy feeling without the (literal) gut reaction.
That’s where gluten-free cornbread comes in. My spouse introduced me to this southern classic years ago as part of his own version of comfort food, and I fell in love with the crisp exterior and soft, moist inside, covered in a thick layer of creamy butter and honey; from my first bite, I was hooked. Now, when I’m in need of the warm fuzzies, I bake a loaf and eat way too many pieces while it’s still warm from the cast-iron skillet.
Pairing it with a warm bowl of chilli elevates it even further, but it’s great by itself, as dessert with tea, for a snack, or as the base of a stuffing.
So, this is my gluten-free comfort food – I hope it does the same for you.
Gluten-free cornbread recipe
- 1 1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 cups gluten-free cornmeal
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 2 tbsp honey
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 cups milk (buttermilk, whole milk, or almond milk work great)
- 6 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 tsp bacon fat (optional)
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas 6. Grease a medium-sized cast-iron skillet (or 8×8 baking dish) with bacon grease or butter, and place inside the oven while you prep the other ingredients.
In a large mixing bowl, add the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk until well combined.
Melt the butter and let it cool slightly while you whisk together the eggs and milk in a separate bowl. Once the butter is cool, add it to the wet ingredients.
Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir gently together with a wooden spoon or spatula. Don’t over-mix, but let everything become incorporated.
Remove the heated skillet (or baking dish) from the ove and pour the batter in. Turn the oven down to 180°C/350°F/gas 4 and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the top is brown and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
Let cool slightly before slicing and serving. Serve with butter and honey for maximum comfort food feeling!