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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Excellent for pleasing taste buds and creating nostalgia

Local Habit

Comfort Food

Excellent for pleasing taste buds and creating nostalgia

Column by Chris Dennett

Photography by Ezra Marcos


As the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, we tend to spend more time indoors. Also natural during the colder months is focusing more on what we traditionally consider to be comfort routines, like being snuggled up on the couch under a blanket or building a fire. We naturally gravitate to the things that give us comfort and solace, and that of course means we begin also thinking about the foods that comfort us 

Comfort food can be hard to define, because it can mean so many things to so many people. When you say those two words, however, it instantly brings something to mind in everyone. Eating is such a primal instinct that we all take some form of comfort in, but there are certain foods that we consider to be comfort foods more than others. For example, Homemade soup is comfort food; Thanksgiving dinner is comfort food; tomato and cucumber salad is not comfort food.

Two local chefs are building their reputations, and a good following, on creating comfort food that hits people not only in the taste buds, but also in some universal “taste nostalgia” place.

Neil Clooney opened Smithfield’s Pub and Pies in October of 2015 with the goal of not only finding a new niche in the Ashland market, but also of going back to the culinary history of his native England. “Pies are comfort food,” says Clooney. He explains pies traditionally were made from off-cuts of meat that required longer cooking times at lower temperatures—what is referred to as braising. This makes them more sustainable in many ways, because there is not as much food waste.

Historically in England, pies were a food of the common people, and still occupy that space today. “As a food, they are more accessible, more approachable,” says Clooney, clearly referencing the contrast to highly produced cuisine that is a common theme in food that’s delicious and simple at the same time.

But don’t mistake simple with uncreative, especially at a place like Pubs and Pies, where you can get a quiche special each day, a special pie each day, and both savory and sweet pies. When I visited, not only were there the traditional English pies available, but also a coconut curry pie and an Asian style pork pie.

Clooney says his grandmother used to make pies, and that’s part of what connects them to his personal history. They hand-crimp the pie crust and braise the meats for hours. Every step of the process is one of love, time, and history.

That same kind of family history ties Braden Hitt to his food at Over Easy, a breakfast and brunch pop-up that occupies the Downtown Market Company in Medford on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Growing up in Oklahoma, he remembers comfort food as breakfast at his grandmother’s house. It was the first meal of the day, and an important time to come together as a family before a long day of work. While breakfast may not be you’re first thought when you hear the words “comfort food,” Hitt makes a strong argument for it…and a mighty good breakfast.

His constantly changing menu keeps diners engaged, but not intimidated. There are always four dishes on his menu, three savory, and one sweet. Hitt acknowledges, “There’s always one that is a little out of bounds.” What he means is there’s always a menu item that stretches the imagination. He says, “I want it to be fun challenging, not intimidating challenging.”

This familiarity with breakfast is what Hitt sees as the fundamental connection that makes breakfast food comfort food. “The products and ingredients are well known,” he admits, “but the end product is a representation of me—my breakfast.”

Because of the open kitchen, you really do get the sense that you’re having breakfast with the Chef rather than breakfast from the Chef. In a very real sense, Over Easy is asking the diner to build a trusting relationship with them, knowing that what they make will be seasonal and familiar with the occasional twist.

Hitt argues a breakfast or brunch culture is a comfort food culture. He creates a comfortable environment where you can have breakfast with friends and plan your day. In the same way, Clooney creates an environment of history and nostalgia that draws you in and makes you want to snuggle up with a meat pie––fork in hand––and pint of beer. 

In my mind, what ultimately makes food comfort food, is something that ties you to your history. Comfort foods are foods that help us feel part of something bigger than just ourselves. Comfort foods are not clinically produced; they are familiar foods. Foods we can imagine making ourselves. Foods we remember people making for us. What’s more comforting than filling your stomach and your memory with happiness at the same time?


Smithfield’s Pub and Pies

23 S. 2nd St., Ashland



Over Easy


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