The other night – too late for a grocery store run but with few options in the pantry – my wife and I split a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. No spicing things up, no healthy side of vegetables to lessen the guilt – just a heaping bowl of the little pasta elbows with powdered cheese. MAN did that taste good. I promptly considered a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert but caught myself just in time. Whoa, boy. Who says there’s no traveling during the pandemic? I’ve made the journey to the land of comfort foods!
A little context before we explore the calories of contentment. After the kids moved out of the house several years ago, our diet moved decidedly to the more healthy. We upped our fruit and vegetable count. We focused on meals with whole foods and fewer ingredients. We started shopping in boutique grocery stores, discovering foods and brands we never knew existed. Dairy and starchy carbs took the back shelf to pure proteins and Mother Nature’s bounty.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this good intention, a box of Kellogg’s Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts dropped casually into my grocery basket. I’d heard they were pretty good and I’d never tried them before, so… why not? Then the kids came to town for a long weekend, so we just had to load up on old family favorites like Cap’n Crunch, Good Humor Creamsicles, and Red Baron frozen pizzas.
But here’s the thing. Our kids eat so responsibly these days, sugary cereals and snack foods no longer appeal to them. They make flourless banana pancakes and organic food “bowls”. They nosh on healthy proteins and Boba teas. They spend most of their time in the kitchen instead of the drive-thru. Those comfort foods we purchased got no love, so naturally we purchased a couple more (the Kraft Mac & Cheese and Hostess Ding Dongs). Heck, we even embellished those choices with a countertop bowl of Brach’s caramel “Royals”, and a huge container of Peanut M&M’s in a nearby cupboard. There’s now a junk-food roadblock in front of every attempt to eat healthy.
What is going on here? I blame the coronavirus. Most of our processed-food pals moved into our pantry in the last six months. All of them were impulse buys (or “moments of weakness”, or whatever else you want to call them). No surprise though; we’re contributing to a nationwide, if not worldwide trend during this pandemic. The world’s biggest packaged-foods manufacturers reported sales growth of 4.3% in the first three months of the year (vs. forecasts of 3%). Canned soup purchases rose 37%, canned meat 60%, and frozen pizza 51%. Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs flew off the shelves.
In all seriousness, a turn to comfort foods is a sign of something more complicated below the surface of our psyches. I wish I could credit nostalgia: the sentimentality for past happier times and places, or emotional eating: the propensity to consume comfort foods in response to positive/negative stimuli. Instead, I think we’re dealing with declinism – the belief our society is heading towards a prolonged downturn or deterioration. We’ve been here before America, as in the Depression of the 1930s, the spread of Communism in the 1950s, or the rise of Japan’s economic powerhouse in the 1970s. In each instance our country soldiered on better than before, but that’s not to say the short-term endurance is any fun. And that, boys and girls, is why comfort foods maintain a “healthy” presence in grocery stores and in your pantry.
Hilton Hotels rivaled the pandemic headlines when they revealed their Doubletree chocolate-chip cookie recipe to the world last April. Talk about your classic comfort food. Doubletree cookies have nestled on hotel pillows since the mid-1980s; a whopping 25,000,000 in less than forty years. “We know this is an anxious time for everyone”, was Hilton’s excuse for sharing their secret. I baked a batch as soon as I came across the headline and now I can’t seem to stop. A heaping bag of Doubletrees now sits in our refrigerator more often than it does not. I could probably recite the recipe from memory, and I dream about them in my sleep. Hilton’s got me hooked.
I still haven’t tried those Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts, the preservative-filled pastries responsible for this whole mess. All are still paired neatly in their foil packets, sitting quietly on the shelf. The box may even be getting a little dusty. I figure my willpower remains intact if I leave the tarts alone until their expiration date. Er, wait – now that I think about it – Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts never expire. Dang it; that’s a little depressing. I’d better have a Ding Dong to cheer myself up.