Comfort food

by Steve

McCall's Magazine Cover, family arriving in kitchen, gathering around foodI guess we all have comfort foods, those meals or snacks that we return to when we’re not feeling good, or need soothing and calming. Trying to look at it objectively, it seems a little odd for us to turn to what is essentially fuel. Why would we seek solace there? I guess it is because food is so wrapped up in our everyday experiences and our memories. Our days are framed around meals. So, if that framework is nice and familiar, it will hopefully offer some comfort.

I have a series of criteria for my own comfort food. I think these may be tied up in the sensations around comfort anyway, but I may also be post-rationalising a little in order to bring some meaning to my favourites.

First, is mouthfeel. I think the best comfort foods have a particular texture. Ideally there should be a softness and a lack of abrasiveness and crunchiness. This seems a good fit, for a foodstuff to be soothing. Without veering too much into cod-psychology, perhaps soft foods trigger memories of being a baby, of being safe and warm and home. Or maybe I just don’t want to irritate my gums when in full comfort food mode?

Then, heat. I guess this is again related to comfort generally. I feel comfortable, calm and relaxed when I’m warm. So many warm foods, from soups to casseroles to a hot apple pie seem to help warm us up as much as feed us.

Blandness. Now, I should state here that I love spicy food. I can’t get enough Mexican or Indian food. I have a worryingly large collection of hot sauces. I’ll add chilli to anything, given half a chance. And yet…this kind of heat doesn’t necessarily comfort. It heightens my senses. It wakes me up. It doesn’t calm me or reassure me. Bland foods are safe, have no surprises and are completely reassuring. I know what to expect.

Then finally, the food should be linked to fond memories. Certain foods evoke a comforting nostalgia. I guess this is most linked to childhood, but certainly isn’t confined to that time of my life.

So, now we have a definition to work with, what actually are my comfort foods?

There is an apocryphal story that Liverpool’s captain, Steven Gerrard, was once asked in an interview, “What is your favourite cheese?” His reply: “Melted cheese”. While my wife periodically uses this tale as an opportunity to wind me up about one of my sporting idols, I can see where he was coming from, whether the story is true or not. Melted cheese is smooth, warm, often bland and immensely comforting.

Cheese on toast takes me back to Sunday afternoon teatimes, Bullseye on the telly and school in the morning. It is perhaps the ultimate convenience food – and let’s face it comfort food really shouldn’t be fussy and difficult to make (unless someone else is kind enough to make it for you!).

A toasted cheese sandwich, ideally made in a Breville Sandwich Maker is probably the ultimate. The warm, encased cheese oozing out is perfect comfort food. It also brings back memories of a time before paninis and other fancy melted cheese sandwich offerings, a simpler time. While it is probably a little kitsch now, I don’t think it can be beaten. I’ll give an honourable mention to macaroni cheese here too.

Next up, let’s talk potatoes. They are bland, warm, generally easy to the bite and linked to all manner of happy memories: fish and chips on holiday, roast potatoes on a Sunday, mash with cold cuts of meat on Boxing Day, jacket potatoes on Bonfire Night.

And mash is my choice of comfort food in the potato department. Soft, smooth, warming and always a treat. It is delicious as it is, or can be perked up with some mustard stirred in, or made more luxuriant with some grated cheese (Ah! That melted cheese again!).

But mash potato only reaches its full potential, and only enters my Comfort Food Hall of Fame, with my wife’s fish pie. It tops lovely, smoky, flaky fish in a soothing white sauce and is completely moreish, tasty and comforting. It makes me think of my wife, our home, and us sitting together for countless lovely suppers. Wonderful.

And finally…a non-soft, non-warm exception that still counts as comfort food to me, and that is the humble pub snack. I have an ambivalent attitude to food in pubs. It is quite often poor, or expensive, or both. When it is good, then the venue often resembles a restaurant rather than a pub, which defeats the object of pub food. So, I’m a fan of a pub that doesn’t head down the gastropub route, but instead offers a full selection of pub snacks.

Crisps are fine, pork scratchings have their place and nuts can be great. But my idea of comfort in a pub is a nice pint of beer and a packet of Scampi Fries. The texture and taste is perfect, although I’m aware they are an acquired taste. The portion is just right to work as a snack and an accompaniment, rather than overpower the main event – the pint. It also takes me back to sitting in a pub garden as a kid, as this particular snack seems to have been around forever. Even the packaging hasn’t changed much, to help it tick the nostalgia box further.

Well, what are your comfort foods? What sort of food do you go to when you need soothing, calming and reassuring?

This post was suggested by Steven Harris (thanks Steven!) as part of my half-baked Blog Post Idea Challenge. Fancy suggesting a blog post yourself? Just visit here.

Image from George Eastman House, via Flickr