The Evolution Of Comfort Food

Fried chicken, lasagna, pot pie… pho, sushi, and tacos?

Comfort food is one of those categories that is always beloved, and a solid sales performer on menus, but what defines it is really changing. Millennials like many of the same comforting standards that Baby Boomers like me are familiar with, but there are other foods they want nothing to do with.

Growing up in Minnesota with a German and Norwegian background, I loved Eastern European foods like my dad’s cabbage rolls and stuffed peppers. Those are things you hardly see anymore on mainstream menus; Millennials and Gen Z customers count them as “yuck.”

It all comes down to demographics. Baby Boomers grew up on homecooked meals—we didn’t go out to eat that often. Younger consumers, on the other hand, were latchkey kids who grew up with two working parents on prepared foods, whether from the grocer’s freezer or restaurants. Fewer Baby Boom and Gen X moms had the time or inclination to fry chicken or make pie crust.

There’s also been a tremendous influx of other cultures here in the United States, thanks to immigration. My own blended family includes Latin, Vietnamese, and mainland Chinese influences. These cuisines have their iconic comfort foods, based on hearty foods like tortillas and rice and noodles, but they also have completely different flavor profiles. My children, who range in age from 21 to 40, have a completely different perspective on food.

This means that comfort food is evolving in some really interesting global directions. There’s still a great fondness for old-fashioned American classics like roast chicken, meatloaf, and chicken and dumplings, but today’s younger chefs are also factoring in foods from their own heritage, like chicken and rice, carne asada, caramel pork, salt-and-pepper shrimp, and pad Thai. These global comfort-food specialties happily coexist on menus that appeal to today’s younger, more adventurous diners.

It’s interesting to think about how our cravings and comfort foods are changing, from the 1970s to current times and beyond, just as our culture is becoming more diverse and inclusive.

Information from Datassential’s Menu Adoption Cycle on Comfort Food really bears that out. Foods like macaroni and cheese and pot roast have achieved ubiquity on menus, while buttermilk fried chicken and crab cakes are proliferating in chain restaurants and supermarkets. But when you look at newer stages like Adoption and Inception, you start to see foods like ramen and Korean barbecue (starting to be seen in trendy restaurants and grocery stores), congee and étouffée (earliest stages, fine dining). This points our nation’s favorite foods in some very interesting directions.

But even a time-honored classic like meatloaf is evolving—it’s no longer the ground-beef-and-breadcrumb combination, topped with ketchup and baked. Now maybe it’s made with pork belly or bison or even wild mushrooms, and it might be smoked or served in a cast-iron pan with haystack onions—although it probably still has mashed potatoes. Because everyone loves mashed potatoes, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

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Chilis are part of the new global pantry, and Minor’s® flavored concentrates offer bold, consistent flavor without having to source, handle, and prepare these tricky ingredients.

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