Mar 2 2011 4:00pm

The Food-Love Connection

cupcakes image courtesy of bossacafez via FlickrFood nowadays is about convenience. How much time do we have to plan and cook and clean up? Meals are just another task in increasingly busy days. Food is fuel. And it seems as if we aren’t supposed to enjoy the food we prepare.

But what if food means more than fuel? Two recent romances explore the deep emotional connection we, especially as women, have with food.

The Next Best Thing by Kristan HigginsIn The Next Best Thing by Kristan Higgins (February 2010), the young widowed heroine Lucy is a baker. She creates these fabulous, incredible desserts that she can’t eat. The guilt of living when her husband is dead and her deep sorrow turn the decadent treats she bakes into ash in her mouth. Her feelings about life and love are inextricably tied to eating her own desserts. Falling in love again finally allows her to let go of her grief and her guilt and enjoy not just her desserts, but her life.

In How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal (January 2011), the heroine Ramona is literally saved by bread. Learning how to care for a starter and kneading and baking bread become her passion and her joy when she is fifteen and pregnant. She loses that piece of herself for a while, caught up as she is in day-to-day living, but after a divorce and a rift between her and her family, she finds salvation in baking again. The book explores recipes and starter passed down from generation to generation, which give Ramona not just a visceral connection to the bread she bakes but an interlocking connection to her roots and her family and her new love.

How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’NealBoth Higgins and O’Neal lyrically present the heroines’ relationships with food. Vibrant colors and subtle textures, the comforting sounds while working in the kitchen, eloquent descriptions of scents of the kitchen, and love and appreciation for the beauty of the ingredients can all be found in these books' pages. The food the characters create is literally the measure of their feelings at that moment in time.                         

The Hindus believe that the food we eat takes on all the emotions of the food itself and of the preparer. Food prepared with love and happiness will taste better and give comfort, love, and happiness to the eater.

In the media we are bombarded with images and caveats about what we eat. Eat this, not that. Don’t eat fat, don’t eat carbs, don’t eat sugar, don’t eat processed. And a big one: Don’t eat emotionally. Many “diets” on the market today have you explore your feelings about food, the why of what you eat, suggesting you keep a food diary and examine your emotions about food. The message almost always implies that tying the two together is a bad thing. But is it really?

There’s a reason it’s called COMFORT food. And sometimes a little comfort food prepared with love can be just the pick-me-up needed to restore our frame of mind.

One of my comfort foods is macaroni and cheese. I have several friends who feel the same. I think it’s because mac 'n' cheese was a staple of our childhoods. A time when someone else took care of us. Love in a blue box and that not-quite-found-in-nature orange cheese. For most of us, mac 'n' cheese is also one of the first dishes we learned to “cook,” instilling a sense of pride and accomplishment, as a baby step to becoming a woman.

I make a homemade macaroni and cheese that is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I’ve adapted the recipe from one I found on the cooking site I don’t make it regularly—it’s more of a special occasion treat—but everyone in my family loves it.


Lisa’s Mac 'n' Cheese


Pasta Sauce:

1 stick butter

6 TB flour

5 cups of 2% milk

3 cups of sharp grated cheddar cheese

3 cups of grated Quattro Fromaggio (I use Trader Joe’s blend) cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese



1 pound penne pasta



1/4 stick of butter                                                                       

1 cup bread crumbs

3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano



Preheat over to 400 degrees.



Melt butter. Stir with other ingredients. Set aside.



Cook the pasta according to directions until al dente. I toss in a little salt and about a teaspoon of olive oil (helps the pasta not stick together). 



Melt butter in large sauce pan over medium low heat. Stir in flour. Make a roux, stirring while the butter and flour bubble, and let it brown slightly, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly (you don’t want the sauce to brown and scald on the bottom, so you have to stir constantly). Then simmer, whisking occasionally for about 5 minutes. The sauce should be nice and thick now.  Turn off the heat and stir in the cheeses plus 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper until smooth.

In the pasta pan, combine the sauce and pasta. Mix until pasta is thoroughly coated. (It will look like a ton of extra sauce.) Pour into a buttered (or spray with Pam), 13 x 9 x 2 baking dish. Sprinkle topping over pasta. Bake until golden and bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes.

You can make the dish ahead of time and put in the refrigerator. Just don’t put the topping on until right before it goes into the oven.


Cupcakes image courtesy of bossacafez via Flickr


Lisa Hughey is an avid romance reader and an aspiring author. She has several projects under submission with publishers and spends her time on the web at and on Twitter @lisahughey

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Virginia Campbell
1. VirginiaCampbell
A wonderful post, Lisa! For me, cooking and reading are two of my favorite pastimes. I believe that you can prepare delicious meals in a streamlined manner so that you can have extra time for yourself. The more complicated your life, the more demands made on your time, the more you need to take the time to care for yourself. Food is not just a necessity for life, it is a pleasure for all of our senses. Cooking should be something that you enjoy, never just a chore. Making use of convenience foods is a smart way to save precious time for the good things in life: family, friends, and reading! Find foods and cooking ingredients that are easy to use and taste-approved! I love to cook and read cookbooks, and many times I will adapt a recipe to make it more suitable for my needs. Classic, simple recipes that you haven't tasted in a while are mighty tasty with a few little tweaks and updates. I always look at recipes two ways: the way they are written, and the way in which I will adapt them to my cooking style. If you are on a restricted diet or you just prefer lighter fare, experiment with substituting "lite" ingredients in the recipes that you are eager to prepare. Keep in mind that replacing ingredients like granulated sugar, butter and dairy products will not only affect the taste and look of the food, but also the texture of the finished dish. Using convenience foods is a blessing for busy cooks, but be a label reader and watch for high salt and fat content. When using prepared sauces and pre-seasoned ingredients, taste the food before automatically adding extra salt, pepper, spices and condiments. Let what's already in the food work for you so that you don't have to work so hard! Your Mac & Cheese is perfect comfort food : ) I believe in moderation in food choices, but that does not automatically eliminate comfort food. My Gran was the greatest cook ever, and some of my happiest childhood memories involve being in the kitchen with her and learning to cook. My lessons in cooking and keeping house are from the old school, but many people today don't want to take the extra time, or simply don't have the extra time, to prepare lengthy and complicated recipes. I have a regular food and fiction post on the web, and I try to find simple recipes that are made with good, healthy ingredients and streamlined preparation methods. I want to encourage people to come back to the kitchen, to enjoy cooking, and to spend time together as a family sharing meals and conversation. Most of us who work and have home and family responsibilities are continually multi-tasking and feeling stressed. Good food that is easy to prepare, doesn't break the bank, and provides that simple, satisfying feeling of comfort is well worth the time it takes to put it all together.
Lisa Hughey
2. LisaHughey
@Virginia I absolutely agree. I tend to be very whole food oriented. Chicken breast sauteed in olive oil with salt and pepper. Roasted vegetables tossed with a little walnut oil. Steamed broccoli. Smashed cauliflower. Fresh fruit. All very simple, quick to prepare. But on non-busy weekends or for special occasions I cook fairly elaborately. :)
Bethany Herron
3. BethanyHerron
A dulce de leche cookie just saved my life. Srsly. Actually, it was only half. It wasn't a binge or anything. But at a moment when my sanity was stretched to the breaking point, it came in and did its wonderful thing. I'm with you; comfort food is a good thing. Maybe sobbing into an entire pint of Ben and Jerry's is not so good, but the perfect spoonful of Mac and Cheese sounds like heaven.
Lisa Hughey
4. LisaHughey
@Bethany Yes! On a really bad day, a potato chip is what does it for me. Not the whole bag but just an ounce or two. :) Binge eating is never good. But we've somehow evolved into a place where food is either good or bad with all the resultant guilt when we eat something "bad". So glad the cookie was around to save you. :)
Deb Rosenberg
5. Deb Rosenberg
What a great blog! I love your details of the books and your insight on food and emotions.. The Mac and Cheese as comfort food is sooo true and I will pass this along to Mel, ( Mac/Cheese is truly the one thing she misses as college and loves to make from the blue box when she is home) and so the next generation begins our dilema with food and what to eat..
I look forward to reading more! deb
Lisa Hughey
6. LisaHughey
@Deb Thanks Deb! Teaching our kids to eat a healthy balanced diet and still leave room for comfort food is probably one of the hardest things we face as mothers only because it's an ongoing lesson. I personally love a cupcake when I'm having a bad day!!! :)
Deb Rosenberg
7. Nicola Marsh
Been snowed under with deadlines so only just saw this blog, Lisa. It's fabulous. One of the reasons why I adore Barbara O'Neal's books is the food angle. The food takes on the life of another character almost, so rich and evocative. I've incorporated food in my upcoming release, Busted in Bollywood, where the heroine rediscovers Indian food along with her heritage. It's nice when people say don't read it on an empty stomach :)
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