Comfort food doesn't need to be heart-attack food, according to Carla Hall, who recently published her second cookbook, Carla's Comfort Food: Favorite Dishes from Around the World (Atria Books). The Nashville native and cohost of ABC's The Chewgave us the Hootie Hoo!
TV Guide Magazine: What exactly makes comfort food so comforting? The taste? The texture?
Hall: It's the emotion. If it connects you with home and family and warm memories, it's comfort food. And every country has it. Every culture has a soothing rice dish or some version of a dumpling. In this world where there's so much bickering and fighting, food can unite us all because it's a reminder that we're not so different. [Laughs] I consider food a political statement!
TV Guide Magazine: Can we really enjoy the benefits of comfort food without the killer calories?
Hall: I'm proof of that. I grew up in the South loving all that rich food but now I make a healthier version of it. I cook my greens with smoked turkey instead of hog jowls and fatback. And I don't stew things to death and lose all the nutrients. My God, in the South you can gum down dinner without putting in your false teeth!
TV Guide Magazine: You learned all your grandmother's dishes and now you're teaching them to your mom. How'd that happen?
Hall: Somehow we skipped a generation! My mother is wonderfully nurturing but not interested in food. She only eats to survive and has no concept of sufficient portions. She had 30 people coming for Fourth of July dinner and came home with one bucket of chicken — like, 11 pieces! We're always trying to multiply the loaves and fishes.
TV Guide Magazine: What's your best dish? What are you terrible at?
Hall: Those fresh peas I made when I was competing on Top Chef — the ones [judge] Jacques Pepin went crazy for — were so simple but they made my career! People still stop me on the street and yell, "Carla, your peas, your peas!" It's crazy. I am horrible with liver and shad roe. And I wish I could learn to make a pad Thai that isn't limp and soggy.
TV Guide Magazine: America really embraced you on Top Chef because you were just so genuinely decent and nice. Why is that so rare on these reality TV competitions?
Hall: I guess a lot of people think that being cutthroat and catty will make you a star. There are certainly other nice people on Top Chef but they tend to get weeded out rather early on. I don't think the audience wants to see bullies, especially when there's such a big anti-bullying campaign going on in our country these days. It's important to show the public, and especially the kids, that nice guys don't always finish last.
TV Guide Magazine: You've said that one needs to be in a good mood to be a good cook. Where does that leave Gordon Ramsay?
Hall: For me, preparing food is all about love and energy. The more happy and engaged you are while making a dish, the more delicious it will be, and the more healing. Like I always say, if you're not in a good mood, the only thing you should make is a reservation!