by Alexandra Rasic
Fall is on the horizon. If there is any season that screams comfort food, it’s fall, right? Cooler temperatures, tantalizing pumpkins and squash piled high at the grocery store, soups and stews on our kitchen tables again; and let’s not forget the ultimate food-lover’s holiday: Thanksgiving!
The origin of the phrase “comfort food” is hard to pin down. “The Oxford English Dictionary points to a 1977 Washington Post article about Southern food (and shrimp and grits, a beloved dish of the American South, in particular) as the first use of the term,” writes journalist April Fehling. “But the late food historian Lynne Olver dug up references to comfort food in the U.S. dating back as far as 1965.” Wikipedia’s entry for Comfort Food notes the term goes back to at least 1966 when it was mentioned in an article in the Palm Beach Post about what adults tended to eat when emotionally distressed. And then there is April White who credits actress and singer Liza Minnelli not with coining the phrase, but with popularizing it when she defined comfort food to a reporter in 1970 as “anything you just yum, yum, yum.” Before Minnelli’s description, “comfort food had been the bland fare of the young, the elderly, and the ill,” explains White. “In the decade after, the two words grew slowly into an inescapable food fad, and now, a half-century later, comfort food has become the trend that will never end.”
Even before it became a common term in our culture, though, comfort food could be found in restaurants. Some have specialized in comfort foods since they opened. Here in Los Angeles, a great example is the Tam O’Shanter in Atwater Village. Our collection contains three images of the restaurant since its founding in 1922 by Lawrence Frank and Walter Van de Kamp (of the Van de Kamp Bakery family). The establishment proudly claims to be the oldest restaurant in LA still operated by the same family in its original location.
The first image we have shows the restaurant by its original name, Montgomery’s Country Inn. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the name changed about a year later to Mongomery’s Chanticleer Inn, and in 1925 it changed again to the Tam O’Shanter. Briefly renamed The Great Scot in 1967, the family changed the name back to the Tam O’Shanter in 1973.
The iconic Storybook-style building was designed by Hollywood art director Harry Oliver. From the get-go, it was a meeting place for Hollywood’s elite including Mary Pickford, Tom Mix, and Fatty Arbuckle. Walt Disney and colleagues spent so much time there it was referred to as an unofficial commissary of his studio. While certainly not the only themed restaurant to have popped up in the 1920s, it’s the only one that has survived, maintaining its focus on hearty Scottish pub food.
In 1938, Frank and Van de Kamp went on to open Lawry’s The Prime Rib on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills, also still very much in business today. One thing the duo became known for early on was something that many of us have in our kitchen cabinets: their famed seasoned salt, the recipe of which was created at the Tam O’Shanter. At first only available to their customers, they began selling the salt in retail stores; and many more spices, sauces, and marinades followed. Today, McCormick & Company owns the product line and manages production and distribution.
The Homestead’s collection includes cookbooks featuring countless comfort food recipes, some of which you can find at the Tam O’Shanter. I took Practical Cooking and Serving home to guide me in making Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding. Previously, I made a total of two beef roasts in my life, and truth be told, they did not turn out well. Both were overcooked and dry. The recipe in Practical Cooking, published in 1916, was written on the cusp of modern technology taking over the kitchen. Recipes were written for cooks using wood, coal, electric, and gas ovens. (How did people cook with wood and coal? We explored this a bit in a previous post.) The best I could deduce was their reference to a hot oven meant about 450 degrees Fahrenheit, so that’s the temperature I used to roast my 3 1/2 pound roast for the first 10 minutes. Then I turned the temperature down to 350 degrees and roasted it for another 55, turning it three times and basting it twice. The book suggested roasting 12-15 minutes per pound of meat for it to finish more on the rare side, so I cooked ours just a bit longer since our family prefers medium rare. I could not figure out if the reference to “skin” in the recipe really meant skin, or simply fat, so I skipped dredging the meat in flour. I did add salt and pepper after the initial heat blast. I have to admit, I was not prepared for success, but the roast turned out great!
Yorkshire Pudding is something I had never made at home before. I’ve had it at restaurants, including the Tam O’Shanter last year. Before I made my own, I would have described the pudding as a bit of a soggy, eggy, delicious biscuit. The one I made from Practical Cooking was anything but! It was more like a hearty, set, silken beef pudding. I know that sounds strange…but it was so good! I did not have a gem pan as called for in the recipe, so I used a scone pan, which may have changed the texture of the finished product…but we loved it! (And we’d make it with drippings from roast chicken, too.)
In all the research I did on comfort food, I have to say that I kept coming back to thinking about something else that April Fehling said in her article: “Comfort food is very personal, and it has changed over time…Your favorite comfort foods are a product of where you come from, where your parents come from and, as palates become more global, where your neighbors come from, too. This last point helps explain how Vietnamese phở and Korean bi bim bap, relatively unknown to many Americans a generation ago, came up more than once in my highly unscientific office poll.” Indeed, having grown up in a place as wonderfully diverse as Los Angeles, phở is absolutely on my comfort food list along with many friends. What are some of your favorite comfort foods, old and new? And what have you turned to during the pandemic? We’d love to hear from you.