Imagine a sprawling dinner table.
There is a plate full of Bánh xèo, a savory Vietnamese crepe, filled with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and green onion. It is crispy and fresh, packed with coconut flavor. There is a big bowl of Bún bò Huế, a Vietnamese soup with sliced brisket and ribeye, Vietnamese meatballs and thick rice noodles. The broth is umami and spicy, packed with hints of cinnamon, star anise and bay leaves. Close by sits a plate with various bunches of mint, cilantro and thai basil to enjoy with the dishes.
Andrew Wang, a first-year biology and chemistry dual major, said his father, who died of brain cancer in 2016, would make him these dishes in his childhood to show love.
“Comfort food is big in Asian cultures,” Wang said. “We express our love through food, and giving food and sharing it, so it’s definitely a thing I find comfort in.”
Five other Pepperdine students shared their favorite comfort foods, and the feelings these perfect meals elicit. However, while these dishes can bring comfort and catharsis, they can also become a crutch in mental and physical health.
Diverse cultures mean diverse foods
Seaver College is made up of approximately 48.1% white students, according to a Pepperdine diversity webpage. The remaining 51.9% of students include Hispanic, Asian, Black, mixed and other races.
Junior psychology major Danny Martinez said his comfort food is a Mariscada, a Costa Rican seafood tower. Martinez, who is half Mexican and half Costa Rican, grew up eating Mariscada and grilling carne asada with his father. Martinez said he always finds joy in a dish like Mariscada, often reminiscing on being with his family while he eats.
“My perfect meal reminds me of my family,” Martinez said. “My late grandmother left on my 17th birthday, and so it just reminds me of her and her memory.”
Martinez reminisced on his late grandmother and times with his family as a youth.
Like Martinez, Wang said he is mixed, being born to a Vietnamese father and a Taiwanese mother. Wang said his perfect meal is one with multiple dishes from both his parents’ cultures. From his father, Bún bò Huế, a rich and spicy noodle soup and Bánh xèo, a crispy and fresh meat-filled crepe. From his mother, a bowl filled to the brim with Chinese-style dumplings, both boiled and fried, and Zhajiangmian, a savory noodle dish with a black bean and pork sauce. Wang said his perfect meal also reminds him of his family and childhood before they lost his dad
“It reminds me of … comfort, being young, being naive and able to take in who you are as a kid, and just having that reassurance that your parents are always gonna give you another bowl,” Wang said. “There’s just some warmth in that.”
First-year advertising major Will Alhadeff said his perfect meal pulls from his Italian roots, consisting of beef carpaccio, chicken parmesan and lemon ice box pie. He said these foods remind him of his childhood, specifically his birthdays.
“I used to go to Italy around the time of my birthday,” Alhadeff said. “I would go with my cousins to this really remote place and have a meal, and it was great.”
Comfort food isn’t just a dish: It’s a feeling
Most students found themselves reminiscing on times with their family and their youth as they discussed their favorite comfort foods.
Isabella Tsai, a senior accounting and business administration major, said she doesn’t have one specific perfect meal, but rather a meal shared with the people she loves. Tsai is Taiwanese and grew up in the Pasadena area. A meal that she misses the most is Brazilian barbeque that her father and uncle would make during family reunions.
“I have a pretty big family, and we’re all in LA, so all of us, when we get together it’s just everybody talking,” Tsai said. “It’s loud, there’s always food, everybody’s telling you to eat something all the time.”
Chase Jackson, sophomore sport administration major, said his perfect meal was not limited to a certain meal, but time he could spend with family.
“Anything I can sit down and eat with my family, get around the table,” Jackson said. “I have two brothers, a twin brother, an older brother, anything I can eat with them, my mom, that’s it.”
He said he views life like a chair, revolving around four ideals, or legs.
“You have four different legs: family, work/school, friends and food,” Jackson said. “And the food aspect is probably the most important one. You need it everyday, and without it, you’ll be on three legs, and you’ll fall.”
Using comfort food to create cross-cultural relationships
Comfort food varies between cultures, exhibited by the various foods multiple students described. For students like Wang, growing up in an Asian household meant sharing food with everyone at the table.
“I feel like a lot of Asian families, you just grab whatever you want even if it’s from other people’s bowls,” Wang said. “Like, ‘Oh, yeah you want this?’ and then you share, you know?”
Eating together allows people to build bonds and connect with others, according to the Yale research blog Human Relations Area Files.
For Tsai, sharing food has become a way to bond with her friends. She said her housemates try to cook with each other often and share their family meals with each other.
“One time, I went back home for a family reunion and brought back some leftovers,” Tsai said. “They loved it.”
Jennifer Phillips, a professor of intercultural communication at Pepperdine, said comfort food is a prominent part of any person’s identity. With students from multiple cultures interacting and engaging with each other across campus, there can be misperceptions and misunderstandings that lead to conflict. However, sharing a meal or snacks can help resolve conflict and negative perceptions.
“I think it is one of the best ways to break any misconception or barriers we may have with other people,” Phillips said.
Martinez, who also works as an resident advisor on campus, often holds Mexican cookouts for his residents, grilling carne asada. Through these events, he said he can share his culture with his residents through good food and good times.
“I will say carne asada is great,” Martinez said “My dad had been teaching me how to grill since I was like 4, and so you know, you kinda get pretty good at that stuff.”
Phillips encouraged people to share their cultural foods, and to have an open mind with others’ comfort foods.
“It’s so important that we do help others see what are some of the dishes out there that we’re especially proud of,” Phillips said. “I think it’s important to try to be open minded in knowing that a lot of it is very similar or can be very similar.”
Comfort food and health
Many people often rely on comfort food as a coping mechanism in times of stress and hardship. Some 38% of adults say they have relied on fast food or overeating because of stress, according to the American Psychological Association.
Katherine McCune, the registered dietician for Pepperdine University, said she works with students to find a balanced diet and routine. She said diet regulation is as much a lifestyle skill as sleep and regular physical activity.
“Students are not that different from the rest of the population,” McCune said. “We all use food as a comforting aspect of our daily lives.”
McCune said many students often turn to their comfort foods in times of stress and hardship, resulting in emotional eating. Emotional eating impacts food intake following stress, characterized by fast food and snacking, according to a recent research paper released to the National Library Medicine article.
Bon Appetit, Pepperdine’s most recent food provider, recently faced criticism for lacking cultural foods offerings. McCune said the cafeteria provides healthy and balanced meals to students.
“The Caf and other dining services on campus, they do provide protein and carb combinations, fruits and vegetables, it’s a matter of just selecting those foods and having them,” McCune said. “I think Bon Appetit is having some favorable reviews, nothing’s perfect. I would encourage some students to give them a try.”
For students like Killian Pankowski, a first-year business administration major, a perfect meal constitutes a balanced and nutritious dish. Pankowski said he typically seeks out something high in protein that comes with veggies. He said his comfort food is something eaten to remedy sickness.
”Well, I really like oatmeal, I’m not gonna lie,” Pankowski said. “Like oatmeal, with like actual milk, hits pretty hard, cause in Poland, that’s what you kinda eat when you’re sick or when you’re like younger, and that just stayed with me and that’s a food that I really enjoy.”
Thomas Chang completed the reporting for this story under the supervision of Dr. Christina Littlefield and Dr. Theresa de los Santos in Jour 241 in Spring 2023. Dr. Christina Littlefield supervised the web story.