Comfort food is an idea that is deeply ingrained in our society. Most of us have heard the term, but even if one hadn’t, they’d likely recognize the feeling. Comfort food isn’t a specific food, but rather more of a memory. It’s different across cultures, families and even individuals. Quite often, it’s something that is high in calories, fattening or sugary, but that is not a requirement. Rather, comfort food is a food item that gives a person a feeling of nostalgia or sentimentality.
Perhaps your grandma always made rhubarb crisp when you were a child. Maybe you really enjoyed all those church potlucks and gooey hotdishes. Or maybe you find comfort in the holidays and the sugary treats that accompany it. I feel a wave of nostalgia every December when I take that first bite of hardtack, fresh from the oven, the same recipe my family has used for generations.
But what about comfort sounds? There is something powerful about sounds that bring back memories. I don’t mean songs — though they can be emotional triggers, to be sure — but simple sounds that, for some reason, knock you right out of the present.
One of the more powerful examples in my life is the sound of a foghorn — specifically when lying in bed. When it is dark and foggy outside, and I am trying to fall asleep, the long, single blare of the Duluth foghorn turns me into a kid again. (I am unfortunately too young to remember the old Duluth foghorn that rattled windows with its deep “bee-uh.”) Suddenly, I am huddled under my soft comforter with the strawberry vine pattern, staring out the window while listening to the theme song from “Masterpiece Theater” drift down the hallway from the family room.
That memory became very specific, didn’t it? There are several more layers to it, including the clicking sound made by my digital clock radio as each minute passed and the little plastic flap snapped down to reveal a new number. I haven’t heard that quiet plastic “click” in ages (does anyone actually have one of those clocks anymore?) but I know it would feel comforting to fall asleep to it. I had a lot of practice, after all.
One of my favorite sounds is that of a teacup finding its place on the saucer. This one is a bit odd for me to hold as a comfort sound, because I don’t remember anyone from my childhood actually using teacups, more or less drinking tea. So why does that ceramic swishing sound fill me with peace and nostalgia? I’ll likely never know, and that’s OK. It doesn’t have to have a clear origin to be a comfort sound.
Sometimes, the memories of a sound take you by surprise. For example, I braved the long lines at Bentleyville three times this past winter. Now, I enjoy Christmas lights as much as the next person, but I’ve never felt the need to hit up Bentleyville more than once a season. The display itself wasn’t new or anything; I’ve seen most of the lights in years past. So why did I go three times?
It was entirely because I loved the lights even more while driving over the boardwalk planks. The organizers laid them so cars could drive through the display without ruining the grounds, but the clickety-clackety sound made by my tires hitting each board delighted me to no end. Do you remember all of those wooden plank bridges that used to be around the area? The Oliver Bridge? The Arrowhead?
Crossing the Oliver Bridge, listening to the car tires clickety-clack over the wooden planks, was one of my favorite things to do on those long family Sunday drives that all ’70s and ’80s children had to endure. Except, I rather liked those drives. As an adult, I didn’t expect to drive through Bentleyville, hear the sound of my tires hitting wooden planks, and feel as though I were once again a kid in the back seat, content to stare out the window and listen to my parents chit-chat while we drove aimlessly around town.
Comfort sounds can often sneak up on you like that, creating emotions and memories where you forgot there were any.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.