Food for Comfort

Written by Mark Kearney

There’s an entry from the travel ­journal I kept during my backpacking days across Europe in late 1981.

I’d been hitchhiking in Ireland and Scotland for several rainy weeks. Now I was in York, England that autumn and wrote, “I should express my gratitude to the humble grilled cheese sandwich. It has kept me going many a time in the past including tonight’s dinner.”

Dining on the youth hostel circuit was far from haute cuisine. In those days, having access to a fridge and a stove in a hostel was sometimes a bloody luxury, so you can well imagine why I might take a moment to extol the wonders of slabs of cheese between two pieces of bread, buttered and, let’s face it, usually fried in a pan rather than actually grilled.

The journal entry goes on for a few more sentences, noting how cheap they were to make and how I had practically lived on them for the first few weeks, when I was starting out as a reporter at the London Free Press.

I had just finished my BA at Western, I had little money (but no student loan to pay off!), and my first journalism paycheque wasn’t due to arrive for another three weeks.

Meanwhile back in York, it was the same story. According to my journal, I was down to my last pound and a half — that’s currency, not weight — and couldn’t get to the bank in time to cash some travellers’ cheques. Remember those relics of the past?

As for the grilled cheese, “for the number of times I’ve eaten them I still find them tasty,” I wrote in the journal. “It also helps to try different kinds of cheeses.”

Well, didn’t I have brilliant culinary insight back in the day? But my point here is that we all have our go-to comfort foods, and to this day I still default to a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch when nothing else presents itself. Granted, the selection of cheeses is sharper, the bread tastier, Dijon mustard is now a must, and sliced tomatoes are often an accompanying filling. I may not have matured much since those backpacking days, but my taste buds have.

I suspect our comfort foods often spin out from childhood. I had my share of grilled cheese as a kid, when anything gooey like that was bound to be a hit. Hearty soups are also a good choice. Why, it’s practically a meal in bowl, some broth buff is bound to say.

It certainly was that for my father. Anytime we were in restaurants he would ask the server what the soup of the day was. The answer didn’t matter; he’d always order it. I wondered why he didn’t just roll the dice and buy it without asking. Cream of chicken, chicken noodle, chowder (Boston or Manhattan), French onion, tomato bisque, cock-a-leekie, mushroom, etc. — he’d get it regardless. If it was soup of the day it must be good, he thought. If someone had said, “Today, sir, our special is cream of rust” my dad would have probably replied, “Great. I’ll have that and bring some crackers.”

As for the humble grilled cheese of my youth, it has now evolved into gourmet fare. Check out any grilled cheese website and you’ll find balsamic blueberry grilled cheese, smashed avocado and roasted tomato, garlic confit and arugula — you get the picture.

Heck, if I’d known about those variations in my travelling days I might never have left the hostel.

About the author

Mark Kearney

Mark Kearney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and has been published in nearly 80 publications in North America. He teaches writing and journalism at Western University.