I love meatloaf.
My grandmother makes meatloaf with hardboiled eggs in it, something I recently learned was not universal, although when I brought this up to a class of students recently, some of the ones from Hispanic backgrounds mentioned that their families did the same thing. It’s probably one of my favorite meals of all time. When my girlfriend and I started dating and discovered our shared love of cooking together, we discovered that we both loved basic and classic Americana meals like meat loaf, pot roast, and macaroni and cheese. I get excited when we decide to make meat loaf, because it tastes amazing and it’s a comforting meal.
Comfort foods fall into that category because we immediately associate them with comfort and security, with positive family memories and experiences, and with the concepts of “home” or “childhood.” Even when we have expanded palates or exploratory tastes (like me) with hipster food loves like sushi or sautéed chicken hearts, we can always rely on familiar foods to bring back those feelings. Food’s almost totemic in what it can symbolize to us, and often has a lot more power than we give it credit for.
I’ve been obsessed with the idea of comfort items recently. Not just comfort food (which is the most well-known item), but also comfort movies, TV, and books. Things we can go back to and regardless of how often we re-experience them and then manage to draw comfort and safety and enjoyment from them have an interesting power. Is it the familiarity? The predictability? Or is it more of a primal thing, a “be drawn to the fire” caveman sort of thing where we can’t exactly explain at first what it is that brought us there, only that we know we have to be there?
I’m a habitual and chronic re-reader and repeat viewer, and only later in life did I not realize how not normal that was. Part of it I think comes from growing up (during formative years) in a foreign country with limited access to English-language media, so it was a habit born out of necessity. We didn’t have a library to go to for new reading experiences, and couldn’t afford to constantly go to the only English-language bookstore in our city for new books (this is also the root of me reading a lot of my parents’ cop/legal thriller/military action novels, which I’ve written about before). Re-reading stuff I already had was something I had to do.
I’ve re-read every book I own a few times, some more times than I can remember. Some I still go back to, to the yellowed pages and broken old spines held together with tape, pages periodically floating out of the glue binding. The fantasy and old sci-fi books my brother and I grew up on are the most vulnerable to this, and I recently consigned an old book I’ve had since I was single-digits age to the “plastic protective sleeve” shelf of my bookcase to keep it from disintegrating.
Similarly, I’m big on re-watching. I’ve watched and re-watched my favorite TV shows and movies over and over, ones that I’ve virtually memorized beat-by-beat, down to the line. We saved movies on VHS taped off the TV, and by the time I’d moved back to the US, had quite a video library to go back to for family movie nights or for me to draw on if I had a precious home at night alone when my parents were out and my baby brother went to bed, giving me free reign of the TV and living room couch. Again, I now can figure out that the limitations around consumable media in my formative years is a big part of that, forcing me to rely on rewatching to get entertainment I could understand.
I fell into literature and punk rock (and later, the types of movies and TV) through the usual avenues, as a bored and nerdy kid with not that many friends, alienate,d and frustrated by a lot of things outside of my control. Of course I’d find solace in books, where escapism into mysteries, horror, humor, fantasy, and science-fiction was far more appealing than getting picked on, struggling in school, and rest of the usual teenage boy litany of issues like sexual frustrations, confusions about life and family, etc. I was as much nerdy as I was angry, so the way someone’s mind would create those fascinating new worlds and stories that could touch me in a deep and primal way was amazing. I felt content in re-living that over and over, in worlds where things could be black and white, where agency could be gained, and where ultimately we could adequately express emotions powerfully without stumbling over being unable to even articulate those feelings.
Incidentally, when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be one of THOSE writers, a big fantasy or crazy science-fiction writer that was capturing those escapist adventures and fantastic emotions and moments.
A big difference between myself and my best friend when it comes to our teenage readings (and even our readings nowadays) is that while I sought out worlds I could disappear into, she mentions how much of her teenage reading was about work immediately relatable to her and her world. I think about this a lot, because I think it’s a divide in how different types of kids develop tastes and attachments to media, which fall on the two sides of relating versus escapism (the sexual politics of it aside considering my best friend’s gender).
I sought out avenues of escape as much as much as I sought out something to relate to, which, over time, turned into familiar and comforting rituals. I so often will go through old books when I go to visit my family, checking out the stuff I left behind that I read and re-read obsessively as a teenager. The movies we watched together as a family when I was young and we were in the living room on a Saturday night, the action movies and dramas like “Eraser” and “The Pelican Brief” were just as much that kind of ritual, and it’s a ritual that, when I’m tired or sad or feeling low emotionally or physically, I indulge in. The stories, just as much as the food, that remind me of home and comfort and that familiar and familial love, give me a sense of things being OK again.
I find that a lot of people don’t really re-read or re-watch as much as I do, if at all. Comfort food we all indulge in, but why don’t we indulge in comfort re-reads or comfort re-watches? People ask me why I re-read books a lot, and it’s hard to explain in a short and simple answer besides “because I love it.” It’s the same with re-watches, especially on a regular basis, like every other month or randomly even if I just re-watched it within the past few weeks. I can’t really explain why (without launching into a somewhat-personal rant) I love to regularly re-watch bad action movies or the DVDs of old TV shows I’ve carted around from move to move, apartment to apartment.
Or rather, do we, and people just don’t like to admit it? There is a level of safety-blanket to comfort books/foods/films and TV, so is it a fear that it’s an immature thing to indulge in? Does no one want to be Linus?
Fuck it, I’ll be Linus. I love meatloaf, I love comfort foods, and consider them an essential part of my metaphorical and literal personal diet. Be it the 10th rewatch of Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Raymond E Feist’s fantasy novel The King’s Buccaneer, or my family’s “chicken francais” (lemon chicken with mushrooms), gimme it all. Sometimes, you don’t want something exciting or interesting. Sometimes, what you want is to feel safe.