It’s been a cold old week, one of those periods where you feel like you never really get warm – January is really starting to bite. We’ve been coming in from dog walks comparing cold hands and digging the big scarfs out from the bottom of the wardrobe. At times like this, your mind turns to comfort food.
While eating a corned beef sandwich (see below), my mind turned to wondering what makes comfort food, well, comforting? Because there isn’t a one size fits all. Some love a hearty stew, while others, me included, would be happy to never eat a stew again in their life. Why are everyone’s comfort foods so drastically different?
I think at this point I should specify my definition of comfort food. To me, it’s something you long for, that you dream about, that you reach for when you’re poorly or down in the dumps. There are, however, two types of comfort foods: foods that make you feel gross afterwards, and ones that don’t.
The first type, for me at least, is home to pizza, fish and chips and all those fast food sins. Yes, you crave them, but afterwards you feel bloated and a little ashamed. Here I’m looking at type two comfort foods, the ones you make at home and may even have some level of nutritional value.
We know we crave type one comfort foods because of the saturated fats and sodium, but what about the type twos? What addictive properties can they possibly have?
I’ve think that we’re addicted to the memories they hold. Most commonly our comfort foods are linked to our childhoods, and the nostalgia we feel when we taste or smell them. Even just preparing the food can bring back those memories – I can’t make a marmite sandwich without thinking about being in my auntie’s kitchen, where she’d make sandwiches with more butter than marmite, then dashing back out into the sun dappled garden to play. (Which reminds me, why, in our childhood memories, is it always summer or Christmas?).
This works backwards too, of course. Dan will eat anything but spaghetti bolognaise following his childhood food traumas with the stuff, while my aversion to stew comes from my memories of chewy, gristly meat in a watery gravy. The way we eat as children informs our appetites more than we know, and sets the blueprint for what will comfort us as adults.
It needn’t just be memories from childhood that inform our comfort food choices though. Milestones in our life, traumatic or notable events, and trying something new can all imprint on our brains, and our taste buds.
When we seek comfort, we seek the familiar. With comfort foods we are looking for things that are tried and tested, that we know make us feel good. They trigger memories of familiarity, of family and love, of a time we were comforted before. I don’t know about you, but I think food’s power to do all that is quite amazing – especially as most comfort food is humble, homely fare. Well done food.
Here are my favourite comfort foods, and the memories they hold…
Corned Beef Sandwiches
Where it all began, both in terms of this post and my life of comfort food. When I was very young my Nanny Vera (Dad’s mum) would look after me, I think after nursery. I was so young that I can’t remember exactly when it was or for how long; its one of those memories that feels very sporadic but I’m sure it must have been a fairly regular arrangement.
Anyway, I would always have corned beef sandwiches with orange squash and lemonade at her house. This is where my soft spot for corned beef came from. Even the smell of the stuff has me walking into her kitchen – I can remember where everything was and how the light would slant in through the net curtains onto the wall. I remember sitting on her pouffy red velvet sofas, the smell of the wax crayons she kept in a biscuit tin and the way she used to call 7 Up ‘Zup’. Every time I eat a corned beef sandwich I’m five years old again, and I remember my grandmother – a slightly odd tribute, but one filled with love.
Specifically, this has to be my mum’s cottage pie where the mash is dry and slightly caught on top so it’s lovely and crispy. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think ‘comfort food’. I had a hard time during my first two years of university, as a lot of people do but never quite admit to. I would come home as often as I could. When I did, my mum would have made cottage pie, and I remember eating it and feeling the weight lift off my shoulders. I think I associate that recipe now with the feeling of safety, of being protected and loved and secure, which is probably why it’s my ultimate comfort food.
I’ve always liked roast potatoes, but their comfort food status was cemented in the period I first met Dan. Working together in a pub, after Sunday service we would all eat the leftover roasts that hadn’t been sold. I’d never had potatoes so perfect – rock solid on the outside, fluffy on the inside and SO flavoursome. I would eat them by the bucket load (literally, he would save me a plastic tub of them).
They are comforting in themselves, but they also remind me of those heady days of falling in love. They remind of the afternoons where we’d finally get to sit and eat together, where we could cast off our work responsibilities and spend the summer evenings together. Even now, roast potatoes form part of our DNA as a couple in our in-jokes and knowing language. I associate this food with the man I love, and what is more comforting than that?