As an illustrator who draws food on most days, I now realize that it has always been the centre of all of my experiences and is pretty much my invisible partner in life: when I travel, for celebrations, family traditions, connected to places I’ve lived. I’ve even built vacations centred around the food and drink I’ve wanted to try.
Looking back at family holidays I’m left with memories of foods that cemented us together and were our annual traditions: cinnamon rolls, turkey and gravy, devilled eggs, cranberry salad... the whole day planned around what foods we would eat and when, in honour of the festivity and our time together. As an adult I’ve built my life around the same principle.
This leads me to think about how I live my life now. Craving to explore all the tasty restaurants in my neighbourhood. Venturing out to try local specialities when visiting a new place. Previously savoured dishes I look forward to when returning to a familiar location. Hankerings for the comfort of a well known and satisfying snack. There is rarely a meal I don’t like, and in my life, food, memories, celebrations, and treating myself all roll into one.
As an expat American from Chicago living in London, part of the move abroad was to explore new cultures and countries, and to experience places both in the U.K. and Europe. Now we find ourselves in lockdown, unable to venture outdoors, so I’ve turned to exploring food in the privacy of my own home. It makes me think about all the things I’m missing, including some past favourites, that were always there when I needed them.
My current comfort food cravings are seldom healthy. They are always heavy, rich and are the perfect balm for soothing this quarantined soul. I’ve tried my hand at making a few of these trusty goodies, or have just pined for the gratification I know they would provide, were they are in reach.
Many popular American foods aren’t as prevalent beyond those shores, or when they do pop up, have been altered beyond taste recognition. The lockdown has sharpened my cravings for foods that connect me to home, place, family, and friends. I have been channeling some comfort through making and dreaming about my cravings, and here are a few favourites that have made the list:
Where burgers and pancakes are served side by side, fries and sandwiches are always on hand, along with patty melts which are another traditional American diner menu item.
They are entirely different to a cheeseburger because their melty cheese oozes from slices of toasted rye. Add caramelized onions to mix with the tang of the bread and it results in a heavenly, greasy, delight.
I don’t care too much that the toast’s edges, which are square, hang over the round patty and just eat the buttery corners sans burger anyway. A true diner masterpiece, it’s hard for me to order much else if I’m sitting down in one. I reason, I can always take a nap afterwards…
Mostly a summer dessert, s’mores are enjoyed by an open fire. When I was growing-up, they were reserved only for camping trips.
The first part to building a s’more is toasting the perfect marshmallow on a stick over the fire - it is an art and pretty much a competitive sport. Rewarded if you get it right, which means not burning it or dropping it into the fire, you’ll have a nice toasty shell with soft sugar goo inside.
The second key ingredient are Graham crackers, which are generally a bit bland, but when paired with a lovely melty marshmallow and combined with the third ingredient, chocolate squares, the result is a sweet and tasty treat.
My parents have a fire pit in their garden, and when I visit them in the U.S., we enjoy making and eating s’mores whilst catching-up around the warmth of fire (with a cocktail as well, of course).
This is a tasty sandwich somewhat related to a French Dip. It’s unique, seeing that you wouldn’t generally make it yourself, and you can find the best ones in Chicago’s casual fast food chains.
Sliced beef that’s been cooked in a tasty bouillon jus is paired with peppers and giardiniera stuffed into an Italian roll. Giardiniera is a pickled pepper relish of sorts that includes sliced peppers, carrots, celery, cauliflower and delivers the right amount of spicy and vinegary bite.
It is essential to ask for it “wet,” which means they’ll dump some extra jus on the filling. It’s a lovely soupy mess that tastes like brothy heaven.
I’ve heard that in the U.K., “nachos” sometimes just means tortilla chips, but as someone who has been making and eating nachos my entire life, that’s just plain silly.
Nachos are, at minimum, cheese melted on tortilla chips, but they can have all sorts of toppings. I used to make it under the broiler in the oven (grill for all your British folk) as a teenager, and now it’s become a special dish for me if I can get the proper tortilla chips.
Dainty thin chips are a no go, you need the thicker crispy version to hold the weight of all the toppings, because soggy nachos are no one’s friend. My favorite ingredients include; black or refried beans, pico de gallo (chunky tomato and onion salsa), jalapeños or peppers, with some guacamole and sour cream and, much to my husband’s disgust, some coriander/cilantro sprinkled on top.
Lick your fingers, this is basically a vehicle for cheese and crunch and is oh-so-tasty.
Deep dish pizza
I’m not talking about your middle of the road thick-crust pizza here: in Chicago there is a special, special “deep dish pizza”. It’s comforting and heavy, and also something you eat only a few times a year.
The best is from Lou Malnati’s, with a cornmeal crust, which is deep like a real pie, filled with cheese, a sheet layer of sausage (yes, you read that right, an entire thick sausage covering the circumference of the base), and topped with sauce. Yes, you definitely read that right!
The sauce on top of the cheese keeps it from burning, as it takes so long to cook. They actually have someone bring it to your table in a steaming hot iron pan and serve it up for you since it’s so cheesy and hot it’d be a mess if you attempted it yourself.
You can get it for delivery in the Chicago area, but I enjoy it much more sitting in the place of its creation. Yum.
Chicago style hot dog
Yet another speciality that bucks all other trends, the Chicago-style hot dog is truly a work of art for me.
As someone who doesn’t like ketchup (yup, it’s true), it is sacrilege to put it on this dog. Rather it sports not only yellow mustard, but a delight of textures; vinegary, sweet, and savory things all combined into one sloppy but amazing sandwich.
I love the sliced tomatoes, that give it a fresh vegetal taste, along with the two, yes TWO types of pickles: both a kosher dill spear and a sweet neon green relish. Neon green in colour it is, and you can only find it in Chicago. The Vienna Beef frankfurter is a must, which gives the perfect snap as you bite into it. Then add some spicy sport peppers, chopped raw onion, and top with a sprinkling of celery salt, all served in a poppy seed bun. It’s just a veritable feast of flavors that is as Chicago as you can get and nearly impossible to acquire anywhere else. So much better than a plain hot dog for me, gives me the veg plus the flavors!
Whilst the quarantine will at some point end and I’ll get back to exploring the outside world and the many cuisines I’ve yet to experience, my cravings for comfort foods will never be fully quenched. They have the ability to always please and be there when I need them, and even just the thought of enjoying them sometime in the future is a comfort.
I am so looking forward to trying lots of new things in various restaurants and places post lockdown, but I’m also looking forward to the satisfaction and tradition of the comfort foods in my life, and taking another big bite out of them when the time is right and a little comfort is on the menu.
Outside of my eating lifestyle, I’m a freelance illustrator and lettering artist who loves drawing food and cute things that make people smile.