“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood without mashed potatoes.”
So begins one of history’s greatest works of literature, The Divine Comedy, according to a newly discovered folio of the manuscript, which, in addition to shedding new light on Dante’s spiritual despair, helps explain why something called a comedy has never provoked more than a smile here and there. That the availability of Betty Crocker Potato Buds might have saved the Italian poet from malaise, and generations of readers from 14,000 lines of impenetrability, will no doubt strike some as heresy. They will vehemently deny it, just as they once denied that Tolstoy’s dark night of the soul as chronicled in A Confession was occasioned by the author’s longing for macaroni and cheese. But such was indeed the case.
In fact, there is no infirmity—spiritual, psychic, physical—that cannot be assuaged or at least mitigated by comfort food, according to the emerging scholarship of Rachael Ray, the cast of The Chew, and others. All agonies great and small, it seems, can be alleviated by “the dishes that are close to your heart, that put a smile on your face and make you feel happy, loved, safe and secure,” as Jamie Oliver’s Comfort Food, a veritable classic in the field, puts it.
And so we must ask ourselves: if the only thing standing between mankind and everlasting happiness is, in Martha Stewart’s memorable phrase, “the creamy, the chewy, the warm, and the gooey,” why is there still suffering in the world? The tendency has been to scapegoat the unequal distribution of sausage gravy, but the matter is more complicated than that. To wit: there are those for whom salvation lies in chicken and waffles, even as others turn to tuna casserole and a third group gorges on Xanax and lithium. Your gooey and mine may differ.
The next time you find yourself in one or another spiritual emergency, ask yourself, what can I put in my mouth? The answer ought to suggest itself immediately and be no further than a pantry-length away. If nothing comes to you, think back to your childhood, to the aroma of fried chicken wafting up from the top of the bucket, say, or the sight of pasteurized prepared cheese product dripping liberally from potassium bromate–fortified toast, or the ripping sound and cloud of powder produced by a Manwich packet over a bowl of 80/20 ground beef.
Still not sure if a particular food is your happiness trigger? Listen for the thoughts that occur as you eat it. I am as one with bliss and ecstasy is a good sign. Another: I am going to weigh 473 pounds if I don’t stop eating this. A third: I wonder what it would feel like to swim in this naked.
There are some who will disagree with this method of evaluation (“how does one swim in chicken fried steak?” I can hear the literalists argue), but of the importance of discovering one’s comfort food and devouring it to the gagging stage there can be little doubt. One only wishes that someone in the 14th century had thought to launch the Food Network. We’ll never know how many Dante-era souls lost to anguish and sorrow might instead have been lost to heart attack and stroke.