Comfort Zone: Fall Food Power Rankings

I’ll be honest– the times, they are bleak.

The long dreaded “second wave” of the Corona Virus appears to be headed towards its crest in many parts of the world, including here in Ontario where we’re seeing record numbers of new cases almost every day, and are gearing up for scaled-down, sparsely attended Thanksgiving celebrations.

The first American Presidential Debate took place last week, and while I tuned in like a concerned global citizen I only lasted around 20 minutes before Donald Trump’s incoherent belligerence compelled me to switch over to Love Island, where the contestants comported themselves with far more dignity.

And it’s not a matter of human health or international security, but my favorite basketball team recently got knocked out of the playoffs, my most despised basketball team looks poised to win the NBA Championship, Cam Newton tested positive for COVID and all of the Canadian players in this year’s French Open have already been eliminated.

If Charles Dickens was setting the scene for A Tale of Two Cities in 2020 he could do so with a far greater economy of words, because right now it’s definitely only one kind of times. 

Please ensure that you are sitting upright and that your neck is braced, so that you don’t experience any whiplash as we move on from considering Dickens to reflecting on another quote that has embedded itself in my consciousness, this one from Audrina Patridge of The Hills. Asked how she maintained her peak physical condition, the iconic reality show’s fourth most interesting personality once explained that whenever she got her heart broken, she couldn’t bring herself to eat. This was more than ten years ago, and I still feel a cold chill spike my spine thinking about it, because it is such unbridled lunacy. What kind of sadness satiates? It is my belief that feelings are always for eating, never for fasting. I can’t guarantee that any medical professional would endorse this, and probably some level of moderation should be practiced, but I contend that nearly all emotional turmoil can be resolved with the help of some combination of carbs, cheese, sugar and/or butter. 

Thus, I present to you my Fall Comfort Food Power Ranking. This list was developed using only my sheer instincts, with no regard for academic rigor, no consistent criteria, and would almost certainly collapse under any kind of peer review. Still, I’m deeming it to be acceptable because that’s the kind of permissible attitude you need to have when it comes to comfort foods, especially during these Worst of Times. You go with whatever it is your heart wants. You search for whatever kind of soup feeds your whatever kind of soul. It is, as they say, all gravy.        

17. Chili

I think I often like the idea of chili more than I enjoy the reality of it, but it has a hearty goodness that pairs well with football games, New Year’s Day, and stormy nights.  

Try: Loaded Three Bean Veggie Chili

16. Banana Bread 

There’s a reason we all instinctively reached for our loaf pans when the world first caved in on itself in the spring. Simple, unassuming but endlessly satisfying, banana bread can turn a house into a home all by itself.

Try: Classic Banana Bread

15. Mushroom Pot Pie

Flaky, golden pastry juxtaposed against a rich, warm concoction of mushrooms. Can warm the hardest of hearts as well as the coldest, most bitter of days.

Try: Vegan Mushroom Pot Pie

14. Lasagna

Lasagna has always struck me as the most Michael-Douglas-in-Wall-Street of all the pastas. Seven different layers of noodles? Stuffed with as many different vegetables as you care to chop, smothered in sauce? Truly the edible embodiment of “greed is good.”

Try: “World’s Greatest” Veggie Lasagna (Congratulations! You did it! )

13. Baked Brie 

What if, the melty decadence of fondu, but also jammy and also wrapped in pastry? It has long been a goal of mine to sit down and eat an entire exquisite wheel all by myself, though the opportunity has yet to present itself. Someday.

Try: Baked Apricot Brie

12. Blondies/Brownies 

Whether you choose to go with Betty or Veronica, these staples of the bake sale circuit feel like a level up from cookies without being a full on dessert course. The chewiest treat.

Try: Pumpkin Salted Caramel Blondies OR Cocoa Brownies with Peanut Butter Frosting

11. Fettuccine Alfredo

All pastas are comfort foods, but some are objectively more fun to twirl around on your fork, and some are more effective at repelling vampires. A garlicky fettuccine alfredo does both.

Try: Elaine’s Fettuccine Alfredo

10. Mushroom Soup

Umami is the taste that is most difficult to define, but a mushroom soup is where it is most wholly captured. My Uncle Ed makes what is indisputably the world’s greatest mushroom soup, and he makes it but once a year, on Christmas Day, in a move that only underscores its greatness. Would that it were more accessible in my every day life, perhaps it could have placed higher in these rankings.

Try: Cream of Mushroom Soup with Garlic Croutons

9. Waffles 

Categorically superior to pancakes, mostly due to their ability to collect delicious little pockets of butter, waffles would be a no.1 seed if this was specifically a breakfast bracket. A top ten finish is still more than respectable at this level of competition.

Try: Banana Nut Waffles

8. Pierogies 

Whatever differences we might perceive between us, humans across all cultures want basically the same things out of life: carbs wrapped around other carbs. Almost every tradition has some variation on this, from Indian samosas to Italian gnocchi, and all of them are delicious. As a person who can trace part of my DNA back to Poland, I have a sentimental fondness for pierogies, but the lesson here is that parcels of potatoes are always good, and potentially also the key to world peace.

Try: To find a nice Polish family to invite you into their lives, preferably with a grandmother (Babcia) or elderly aunt (Ciocia). Barring this, here are homemade pierogies.

7. Nachos 

There are almost no circumstances in life that can’t be improved by a plate of nachos. A night in watching a big game. A night out at pub trivia with your friends (at least, this was the case in the Before Times.) An outdoor lunch at a cottage. A random weeknight you don’t feel like actually cooking. A true classic. Universal. Timeless. The Ella Fitzgerald of snacks.

Try: Loaded Sheet Pan Nachos

6. Chocolate Cake 

A perfect slice of chocolate cake is an act of alchemy. To strike the exact balance of fluffy and crumbly in the cake itself, and then complement it with the right ratio of frosting layers requires studious dedication, but to eat such a masterpiece is divine.

Try: Cadbury Chocolate Fudge Cake

5. Macaroni & Cheese 

Though the world might offer us an infinite bounty of noodle choices, only one makes you feel like you are being embraced in the warmest hug. A breadcrumb-topped homestyle mac & cheese casserole will elevate any chilly night in, especially if you also have a fire on and some board games to play. But I’m also not above Kraft’s classic blue box rendition– just make sure you eschew their recommended milk and butter and replace that with five tablespoons of cream cheese and a splash of heavy cream.

Try: Ree Drummond’s Macaroni & Cheese

4. Mashed Potatoes 

Humble, unassuming and all too often overlooked, mashed potatoes are the Christoph-Waltz-in-a-Tarantino-movie of foods. Try to imagine Thanksgiving Dinner, or any other cold weather feast without them; your table is instantly bereft. Just like every Jordan needs a Pippen, every saucier, flashier dish calls for a sturdy side of mashed potatoes.

Try: Chipotle White Cheddar Mashed Potatoes

3. Apple Pie

 Coming home after a long journey. Reuniting with loved ones after an extended time apart. A baby’s laughter. The way a dog closes his eyes when you scratch behind his ears. All of these things come close, but do not fully describe the experience of having a bite of apple pie. No matter how full people might be after indulging in second (or third!) helpings of Thanksgiving Dinner, rare is the person who declines to participate in the meal’s grand crescendo. Probably because anyone who does, finds themselves uninvited the next time around.

Try: Bourbon Apple Cider Pie

2. Hot Chocolate 

To be a true comfort, a food (or, in this case, a drink) should be available and acceptable to have every day, which is why hot chocolate has so many of its valiant competitors beat. Some straightforward powdered mix is a dependable, understated choice when you need to be efficient, but the genuine decadent article calls for good quality bars, freshly chopped and melted before being whisked with sugar and heavy cream.

Try: Creamy Raspberry Hot Chocolate

1. Tomato Soup & Grilled Cheese

There’s a TikTok sound going around right now that asks how anyone could possibly be getting through 2020 without having a dog. This is a sentiment I can passionately endorse in itself, and one that I’m going to now repurpose for grilled cheese and tomato soup: how could anyone possibly keep it together during cold weather without grilled cheese and tomato soup? This is the only antidote to a string of grey and blustery days, to trudging around in wet boots and heavy coats. It tastes like snow days and childhood and blankets straight from the dryer, and it does what comfort foods are supposed to do best: make you feel like everything is going to be alright.

Try: Creamy Tomato Soup with Grilled Cheese Croutons

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