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What Makes the Perfect Comfort Food?

My spouse said they knew something was wrong. At first I didn’t think I was doing anything differently — I was eating string cheese on the couch as they got ready for band practice, looking at my laptop, not saying anything. But it was the quality of my silence, I guess, an edge to it that they noticed before I did. They always notice it before I do.

“Take care of yourself, please?” they implored on their way out the door, promising to be back soon, after they got me to admit that yes, the weeks of obligations pulling me in different directions had finally ripped something apart. Tears ran down my face so easily, too easily, over what seemed like nothing at all. Work was hard? Too much Slack?

What was I going to do to ease things? Take a bath, maybe, though I had already taken a shower and the guilt of too much water usage hung over me. Watch a movie, though I was bailing on seeing one with friends to wallow. “I might order takeout, if that’s ok,” I asked, not needing permission for the expense but for the pure indulgence of having a desire for something other than what my own hands could easily create.

Eat a burrito about it.

Does food bring me comfort? It sometimes brings me joy, or fills me with curiosity, or leaves me in awe. Most often it gives me a vague satisfaction, the knowledge that I experienced flavors and textures I like, and now I can move on with my day. But comfort is a difficult feeling to pinpoint. “Comfort food” is stereotypically rich but simple, childhood indulgences meant to remind you of possibly better times. The reminding is the point. The cheese or broth or seasonings should make you think not of now, but then.

But food, no matter how deeply connected to identity and history, is still a ward against hunger, an annoying fact of bodily existence that keeps rearing up every few hours no matter what I do. I’ve often said I’d love the basic needs of humanity — food, sleep, warmth — to be cumulative. Sleep for 24 hours and be able to stay up for four days. Take a hot bath and not need to layer sweater over shirt. Have one meal a week, like a snake, and not have to think about it.

Comfort, to me, means not having to think about anything. My mind is too fast. Ruminating thoughts, my therapist called my habit of playing out hypothetical conversations in my head, a hundred if X then Y equations of logic. So a comfort food, it follows, would be a food that I did not have to think about, did not challenge me nor alert me to its insufficiencies. It has to be easy to eat, good but not distractingly so, make me happy but not, like my grandmother’s halwa, leave me wondering what spices are creating that feeling. I am Andy Garcia in Ocean’s Eleven and the meal is Matt Damon. “[S]he’s got to like you then forget you the moment you’ve left [her] side.”

Eat a burrito about it.

A burrito is the ideal food to accomplish this balance. My other takeout comfort food standard is pad thai, but that was too much for a night like this, where a hot pot dinner and a movie at a repertory theater had been abandoned for sitting on the floor, watching Varsity Blues in the dark, checking various spreadsheets long after I should have signed off as the knot in my chest refused to loosen and tears continued to fall. This is not to say that Thai cuisine is more interesting than Mexican, but that rice and beans fill the grooves in my brain in a way that either has to do with Indian heritage or consuming essential aminos. The noodles’ need for utensils was somehow too overwhelming. Pad thai is for a relaxing night in. The burrito is for when it’s an emergency.

The particular burrito I hinged my hopes on came from Salerno Pizza & Mexican Food — the place I determined served the best vegetarian and/or chicken burrito in my neighborhood after a lengthy search. My criteria for “best” were ill-defined and impossible to outwardly communicate. My spouse would be perfectly happy with their order while I’d pout over mine being good but not correct, my brain shouting nonsensical thoughts like “too lettuce!” and “tang??” Once, a burrito arrived with what I was convinced was Caesar dressing.

I’ll admit I have no idea where precisely the burrito comes from or what regional histories and cultures I should be respecting in my assessment. I know there are varying burrito traditions across Mexico, California, and the Southwest, but I don’t know from which of those the griddled cylinder I began to eat straight from its takeout box originated. Who knows? Maybe the one from Salerno Pizza & Mexican Food is perfectly authentic to somewhere and someone.

I can tell you now that the grilled chicken and pinto beans were laced with enough sour cream and cheddar (they say it’s cheddar) to make it all a creamy stew, but the yellow rice stayed separate, keeping the burrito from becoming the sin of mush-in-a-tortilla. The tomatoes were firm and bright, the onions sharp, and the amount of cilantro tasteful — even though I’m someone who can eat cilantro by the fistful. The whole thing was griddled, lending both structural integrity and the lightest caramelization. It was pleasantly heavy.

But in the moment the flavors and technique put into the burrito did not matter. Opening my mouth for the first bite made my cheeks crack where my tears had dried. I noticed warmth more than anything. But no, it didn’t yet distract me from everything else. I refreshed my email, dreading a message that I was convinced would tell me I was incompetent. I toggled between two spreadsheets, watching numbers stay stagnant and too low. Between that, of course, there was social media reminding me of genocide and the ever-dwindling number of states where my spouse and I could safely live, or even visit. Who cares about the details though. I have been in this mood for less. The need to justify why I was feeling that way just led to telling myself I shouldn’t be feeling it at all.

I kept eating, which made it harder to operate my keyboard. Repetitive motion replaced repetitive thoughts. Hands to mouth, mouth to teeth to stomach. When I was done, my body felt weighted. Is that the same as saying I was full? No, fullness feels like a balloon, being carried away by your own stomach. This felt like an anchor. I was still in my brain, but I was in my body again too. After I finished, I still felt a sob hovering near the roof of my mouth. But the weight and warmth spread, and I could feel my stomach gurgle and the faint aftertaste of onion and dairy, which led me to consider what I was actually feeling. I felt sad, I felt worried, I felt like a failure.

So I curled up with my feelings instead of trying to simultaneously escape and pretend there was nothing I wanted to escape from. My heart beat harder than it should. Every few minutes I felt my face seize in a near-cry and then relax. I stayed horizontal. I was getting comfortable.

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