I’ve been thinking a lot about comfort food recently, whilst staring wistfully out of my kitchen window at a carpark. These are very much times for comfort food – we need as much comfort in our lives as possible. I’m just not entirely sure what it is.
I keep trying to define it in my head, and just when I think I’ve got it, something pops up to disprove it. “It’s got to be hot – like, properly piping. Steam has to be coming off of it, juice may well be bubbling over the side of it. Good. Nailed it. Now I can get back to eating this block of cheese”, and then later that day “Oh bollocks – ice cream.”
Perhaps it’s a dairy thing? Cheese, butter cream – those things are pretty damn comforting. But then I made a vegetable chilli the other night with butternut squash, black beans and chipotle, and that was pretty bloody comforting.
Of course, the whole endeavour is futile anyway. What is comforting varies from person to person. It’s why if you see a stranger crying in the street and give them a hug you could receive in return either a friend for life or a punch in the dick. Comfort food (for me) is about memory. In fact, food is about memory.
Everyone knows (or is) someone who hears a few bars of a song and becomes overwhelmed because it transports them like lightening to a certain place or time or feeling. I get that with smells and tastes. Mrs Ice-Cream and I bought some Ovaltine in a supermarket recently* when we were feeling particularly post-modern and ironic. We made a mug that night, and while Mrs I was underwhelmed, I was suddenly in my Grandad’s front room at 11am with a plate of buttered Cornish Wafers in front of me and the faint smell of damp rolling tobacco lingering in the background. It was uncanny.
Maybe we rely far too much on delusions of objectivity when writing and thinking about food; of course something can be too salty, or over-cooked, but isn’t that secondary to the feelings that it gives you, be that comfort of curiosity or confusion or compassion when we’re thinking about whether it was good or nice or tasty? Besides, our palates are all different. I know people who, if they saw how much salt I put in things, would have a coronary. Now that’s irony.
In the budding stages of our relationship, I made Mrs I mac and cheese; one of those dishes that any self-respecting foodie has nailed. It’s like a badge we wear: “Mac and cheese? Haw, haw haw… allow me“. Her mum made it for her. It had a special place in her heart.
Now, foodie friends, if the kitchen sink was made of gruyere, I would have thrown it at this mac and cheese. My lord, the dairy. The dairy. This thing was cheesier than a…** Anyway, it was bloody delicious. But when I looked up from my plate, cheese dripping from my chin, I saw her looking troubled. It wasn’t the same. It might have tickled the tastebuds, but it didn’t humour her hippocampus***. Her mum put tomatoes in it. The mustard was too pokey. It bore little relation to her memory of the dish, which trumped any objective sense of how nice it was. And it was bloody nice.
I just finished reading a book called Espediar Street by the late Iain Banks. A bit towards the end kicked me in the feels:
“…it felt like faith, like revelation: that things went on, that life ground on regardless and mindless, and produced pain and pleasure and hope and fear and joy and despair, and you dodged some of it and you sought some of it and sometimes you were lucky and sometimes you weren’t, and sometimes you could plan your way ahead and that would be the right thing to have done, but other times all you could do was forget about the plans and just be ready to react, and sometimes the obvious was true and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes experience helped but not always, and it was all luck, fate, in the end; you lived, and you waited to see what happened, and you would rarely ever be sure that what you had done was really the right thing or the wrong thing, because things can always be better and things can always be worse.“
Comfort food isn’t about potatoes or cheese. It’s about reminding ourselves of the hope that those times when things were better will return.
*I say recently… it was about two years ago. Ah, the memories.
**I’m not going to lower myself to finishing this simile.