An encounter with a classic comfort food leads a writer to reflect on the consoling powers of these simple dishes

On a bus in from the Seattle airport, I spotted a sign: Dahlia Lounge. The place looked like everything I'd missed about New York City during the four long winter months I had just spent in Missoula, Montana. Shadow glimpsed through the storefront windows suggested a seedy elegance. The open door revealed dark red walls. And 24 hours later, after jewelry, book and boot shopping, after a sampling of single-malt whiskeys, after a jazz concert, after a lunch of various satays at Wild Ginger, after a visit to the waterfront, after a movie, after barely sleeping at all, I was seated in the Dahlia Lounge--exhausted, but still capable of reading the menu. In addition to such entrées as Troll Caught Salmon with Mascarpone Mashers, Baby Beets and White Truffle Sauce and Dungeness Crab Cakes with House Made Tasso Ham, Mustard Greens and Spice Roasted Pecans, there at the bottom was--macaroni and cheese.

It looked startlingly out of place, less than half the price of the other dishes. Its very plainness seemed to be the point, a naked reminder of the primitive powers of food to stoke, to soothe, to renew. Although I had come looking for more adventurous food, I was so strung out that the mere sight of the dish on the menu cheered me. Even people who dress from head to toe in black, after all, sometimes just want to put their foreheads down on the tablecloth and moan.

Everyone knows what a comfort food is. It's what you eat when you've been working for 72 hours straight, when that rattle in your car is getting worse, when you learn that your mother has taken up therapy to complain about you. A comfort food must cradle the tongue the way a pillow cradles the head. It can flirt with being too rich (hollandaise, Häagen-Dazs), but it cannot be too thin (save clear soups for actual sickness). It must fill the belly; more important, you must be able to feel it filling up your belly in a warm but unobtrusive way. It cannot be crisp, piquant, spicy, salty, pungent or crunchy. Celery may be bland, for instance, but it is most definitely not a comfort food.

Even its definition eschews the sharp and distinct. It is really less a separate category than a range of mildness and softness. Mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese are equally viable contenders for the purest state of the genre. With most other foods, though, it's a matter of degree. A certain ginger-flavored rice dish got me through a number of difficult evenings, but strictly speaking, the distinct borders of grains of rice are problematic. For comfort purposes, rice is better off in pudding form. The longer the cooking and the more uniform the color, the higher the comfort index. Cream, butter and eggs are all good indicators. Some people think that anything with melted cheese counts. Southern food has more examples than northern; the English seem to have once considered it their national cuisine (they called it nursery food).

You may notice that in most cases comfort food must be prepared from scratch; you cannot get it from a box. I'm sure there is a reason for this that can be traced back to primitive societies, but right now it can be hard on a person like me, who is generally the designated cook. You can't be soothed in quite the same way by food you have to make yourself. In college I got good at mashing up a single serving of red potatoes, but now I rely more often on restaurants.

When I was first in New York, about 20 years ago, there was a certain lunch spot called Mary Elizabeth's that served nothing but comfort food in a comfort setting. Entering this sacred retreat was like moving to a rest home. The clientele was largely female, and since the place was not too far from the late department store B. Altman, it attracted a number of faded, genteel shoppers. The uniformed, middle-aged waitresses always had the same stations and always called you "dearie" as they asked what you would like to eat.

My order, too, was always the same: baked spaghetti, which was served in a white bowl with a piece of bacon and melted cheese on top. The pasta was not exactly mushy, but there is something about baking it that knocks the backbone right out. In a pleasant way, of course. Once I cried alone through an entire lunch, over a boy I've completely forgotten, or maybe he's my husband now; I don't recall. I think it was that word dearie that set me off.

Mary Elizabeth's placed no demands upon you and seemed equally unreflective about its own powers. No one ever worried about what the food meant. But all too soon the concept of "comfort food" came to be thought of as dated and thus a fit conduit for irony. Those camp aficionados Jane and Michael Stern, for instance, devoted a whole chapter to it in their 1984 cookbook, Square Meals. As the double meaning of the title suggests, they wanted to have their Pink Lady Baltimore Layer Cake and laugh at it too. To some extent, this approach worked. Certain foods comfort no matter what the circumstances, the way martinis make you tipsy whether you just drink them or you drink them as part of the new martini-and-cigars retro chic. Still, winking at your food interferes with true pleasure. Irony can be one cold stool to perch on.

By the Nineties, fortunately, people no longer had to prove that they were better than their need for this kind of food. When Tom Douglas opened the Dahlia Lounge, he concentrated on starches. His mixture of sophistication and comfort (which he treated with a new seriousness and dignity) was a great success, and soon other restaurateurs started copying him.

I didn't have the macaroni and cheese that night. I hadn't traveled all the way from Montana to eat something I'm accustomed to whipping up for my children back home. Instead I had the lobster ravioli, which was not technically a comfort food, even though it did have several of the elements. I wasn't sorry. It was a lot tastier than Mary Elizabeth's baked spaghetti. And just as comforting.

Jacqueline Carey is the author of a collection of stories, Good Gossip, and two novels, Wedding Pictures (with drawings by Kathy Osborn) and The Other Family. She lives in Missoula, Montana.