OK, quick, name your top five comfort foods, the meals you count on to relieve some of the anxiety of uncertain times. Umm, the flavors, aromas, textures, and probably not-so-subtle spices of times gone past, the everyday, home-cooked meals, with “secret” ingredients, like mustard in macaroni and cheese, that you sat down to at the end of another one of “those days,” magically calming the tummy and somehow making sense of it all.

My wife and I got to thinking about comfort foods recently and discovered that years of living overseas have complicated grocery shopping. Yeah, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese and pot roast are still easy, but where do we find the really good kimchi? And it’s gotten harder to hide the tofu from the boys when they visit, since that’s what they look for, along with a little freshly grated ginger and a splash of soy sauce.

We split on Spam, which I still associate with something you could count on for a quick, satisfying repast while hiking or hunting with colleagues in the Alaskan bush. I have, however, abandoned dried fish and seal oil (with just a hint of Worstershire sauce) on the basis of supply as well as political correctness now that I’m back living “Outside.”

We’ve been intending to go vegetarian-we have, in fact made several attempts-but the “comfort” of kale hasn’t kicked in yet. I think we’ll get there, but it may take either times of greater calm, or paradoxically, more intense concern, to just make the shift.

If you are what you eat, than changing what you eat changes what you are. There really is a deeply “spiritual” dimension to food; a literal communion with family, community and the planet, the physical substance of shared well-being.

Champion Sumo wrestlers (it’s absolutely true!) as well as Tour de France competitors depend on specifically tailored, “technical” diets, sometimes veiled in secrecy for added psychological as well as physical advantage. Are there really special ingredients for success?

My wife claims I think too much about food; I tend to remember places, events, encounters based on what was on the table at the time. The most amazingly profound meal I ever had was an iftar (the fast-breaking meal after sunset during Ramadan) in Tanjung Pura, the “county” seat in North Sumatra from which our staff circuited the cluster of coastal villages we worked with. I have never felt so welcomed, never so honored by the attention to detail and the sense of inclusion as during that overnight visit with the county chief and his family during an intense time of spiritual reflection in the midst of everyday occupations. Despite 9/11, this is my image of Islam.

Or the preparation of winter kimchi in Ch’eong Ju, a provincial capital in the center of South Korea. Still my standard for kimchi, all the more fulfilling for the many hands that went into its preparation before being stored in a barrel and buried in the backyard as an anchor condiment for the breakfasts, lunches, snacks and dinners of the next three months.

Maybe the common meal is what plants the comfort into comfort food; the direct association with those with whom we share a commitment to care, at the most intimate and enduring level.

And this would be why common meals–as pot lucks, village feasts and community festivals–play such a powerful role in establishing and sustaining community cohesiveness.