At some stage or another, a young girl has to take that big step: steal her mother’s copy of Delia Smith, smuggle out the well-seasoned Le Creuset casserole dish and set up house for herself.
In my case, it was a dog-eared childhood gift of a cookbook (I was a weird child. I liked reading anything, including cook books. I don’t recall ever making anything from the book, despite hours spent poring over the images and cooking instructions!) filled with page after crusty page of tried-and-true classics, and a collection of girly pastel Le Creuset pots.
Luckily for me, I came from a long line of food-lovers and, as far back as I can remember, food and the ceremony that goes with it have always been fundamental.
The most important events in my life have been punctuated by food. In times of celebration, extravagant culinary concoctions and classic family favourites, and strange food demands (a scotch egg with a candle in it anyone?!) give the occasion meaning and purpose; in times of sadness, family companionship and the soft blanket of comfort food is the best rescue remedy; in times of sickness, the greatest act of love is for someone to make you chicken soup or bring you your favourite meal or snacks (my boyfriend excels at this, during a time of prolonged illness he brought me my favourite deli snacks for M&S every day as well as his mums amazing Asian dishes; in times of adventure, the ways of the world are opened up via our tastebuds. They say money makes the world go around, but often it’s good food that makes it worth spending.
My parents always spent money on food. They valued it above most things. Our house was always bursting with food and drink and my mum always told us you should buy the best food you can afford. She was a vocal advocate for good quality meat and fish. We were encouraged to try everything and anything. My parents never made separate children’s meals and always fed us exactly the same as them from a very young age.
We would get a Chinese takeaway on the weekend and even at five years old I would order a ‘seafood casserole’, the most expensive thing on the menu, and they’d encourage it, pleased that I enjoyed the king prawns, mussels, calamari, scallops and more and never trying to direct me to the children’s options. I remember going out for dinner aged around 8 years old and the waiter being surprised that my parents were ordering langoustines for a child!
I always loved fish and seafood. I remember loving sea bass and rosemary potatoes when I was young, and I still do. I also have vivid memories of eating crab in my grandparents caravan in the Scottish highlands and putting out lobster pots. My sister was so upset and the thought of the lobsters being captured that my dad took us to free them and I’ve always remembered that whenever someone orders lobster in a restaurant.
My fathers childhood under his parents eccentric tutelage made him the adventurous and inventive gastronome he is today. ‘Penguin soup’ is a dish of family folklore. No animals were harmed in the making of this meal, though, don’t worry. My eccentric grandpa just emptied a couple of packets of penguin biscuits and melted them in a pot and ladled it out into soup bowls for his enraptured children.
His unique approach to food consumption continued long after his children had grown. I recall my grandpa having a favourite party trick of juggling eggs and then eating them whole – shell and all! Or else he’d eat an orange, as though it were an apple, peel included!
My dad repeated history by introducing bizarre food and drink traditions with us. On Easter we were encouraged to drink iron bru out of a half of the Easter egg shell. I loved the novelty of this even more than the feast of chocolate and the impressive egg hunts my parents would put on!
I was doted on and completely indulged by my parents. At a young age I had my own Little Tikes house that I kept my own kitchen within, complete with a miniature saucepan set, which fuelled my desire to cook. I also had a China tea set that I demanded real tea bags to put in, wasting countless in my cold water tea! I was forever inviting family members and neighbours to sample my cooking: mud pies garnished with snails, corn-silk spaghetti with crab-apple meatballs, and my personal favourite bubble bath and shaving foam soup!
I’m sure I inherited my passion for food and entertaining from my parents, who did everything possible to encourage this culinary love. They entertained in style and were unbelievably generous when it came to food. I have lost count of the number of people who have expressed dismay at their level of generosity with food and drink.
Their endless search for new and unusual ingredients to let us sample took them well beyond the local supermarket. I remember them leaving the house early to go to a market in the local city because it was the only place that sold whelks. It was a mysterious parcel they returned with, wrapped in butchers paper, and with a flamboyant flourish, my dad tore them open. Out tumbled what looked like kilos of fresh mussels and their cousins, the whelks.
Our childhood parties were always extraordinary, with more toys, decorations and costumes and treats than Disneyland. But sweet treats weren’t saved for special occasions in our house, which was famous for its food and drink 365 days a year. It was like Christmas all year long in our cupboards. When my dad asks a child if they’d like a bag of sweets, he means a generic shopping bag, not an individual packet of Haribo or the like!
My siblings and I were obsessed with jelly when we were young. My parents used to fill our fridge with jelly regularly while we were asleep – lime, orange, lemon, raspberry and strawberry jellies would fill jelly moulds, casserole dishes, bowls and glasses and we would be ecstatic to be greeted with a rainbow of gelatine when we woke up.
Like most children, I loved cake, and at the weekend we would usually bake them with my dad. We would always choose the same ones: lemon meringue pie for my brother, chocolate rainbow sprinkles cake for me, and Tom and Jerry fairy cakes for my sister. I always think of those Sunday afternoons when I eat lemon meringue pie, but I haven’t been lucky enough to reconnect with the Tom and Jerry cupcake as an adult, unfortunately!
My dad visited a lot of offices as part of his job and he’d always take the favourite biscuits of the people he was visiting. This meant his car was jam-packed with every biscuit you can imagine. If you said you would like a jammy dodger, off he’d go to the boot of his car and return with a packet, as well as a few more varieties. I thought everyone’s dad kept hundreds of biscuits in their car and was once at a friends when her mum said she was in the mood for a biscuit but had run out. I said earnestly “have you checked John’s boot? He MUST have loads in there!” which they laughed about for years. They thought I was accusing the dad of secretly eating biscuits, on account of his body shape!
The sweets weren’t just devoured at home, we also guzzled them when we were with extended family. When I was very young I used to stay with my maternal grandparents a lot and every morning at 6am – come rain, hail or shine, summer or winter – my grandpa would go to the local corner shop for newspapers and would return with mars bars and Lucozade for ‘breakfast’ for me, my siblings and cousins. I thought this the height of breakfast extravagance compared to my usual cereals and I still think of that when I eat a mars bar or drink Lucozade. The latter has always been mine and my brothers favourite drink, which I think stems from those early years.
Then there’s the more unusual combinations. I was obsessed with mangoes and remember trying them for the first time when I was four and then demanding them regularly for years. One day my dad brought mangoes and coconuts and I remember drinking the coconut water, and being exhilarated by this new drink, and announcing mango and coconut to my new favourite combination. Trendy now, but quite a funny combo for a pre-schooler 20 years ago!
It’s not just the tropical fruits and seeds though that bring back happy memories. In fact, the more mundane combinations bring the most comfort.
Every day when I got home from school, my mum would have made me a toastie, usually my favourite combination of tuna mayo and onion or cheese and tomato, accompanied by a pint glass of Robinsons orange and pineapple diluting juice and a selection of vitamins on the side. Any of these induce nostalgia pangs in me now. As does the taste of blackberries. They instantly transport me back to that same era, when I’d pick brambles from the bushes around my primary school to eat on the way home.
I also have lots of very early memories of sitting on my Nan’s worktop, watching her make stew and then eating it copious amounts of it (even my grandpas share) while still sitting on the worktop. There are few things more comforting than beef stew, don’t you think?
The notion of comfort food intrigues me and I’ve explored it in more detail over the years. Reading books such as Last Suppers, by Ty Treadwell and Michelle Vernon, which focussed around the final meals of death row prisoners. It’s not a big surprise that all of those listed in the files were childhood or family classics. This is the food that reassures and soothes us for some reason and there is a surprising variation in what hits the spot for different people.
Of course, the coldest time of year is the perfect time to be soothed, and in the depths of winter, a slice of rich, luscious chocolate cake can lift even the most Seasonally Affected person out of their chilly-gloom.
For me, in winter, sometimes it’s chicken casserole with mashed potatoes followed by a big bowl of apple pie. For my friend Roo, it’s soft boiled eggs, toast soldiers slathered in butter and a big mug of tea. For another friend, Mia, it’s a couple of squares of good dark chocolate. For all of us though, comfort food is all about feeling safe, secure, warm and, well…comfortable. It’s the edible equivalent of snuggling in front of a fire on a wet Sunday afternoon.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the first known use of the term “comfort food” was documented in 1977. It’s official definition is “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” But for most of us, comfort food is the food with the best memories from childhood; those dishes we remember from when times were simpler and we were being exceptionally well looked after.
Studies have found that women use food to soothe themselves emotionally when they’re feeling upset. Men, on the other hand, tuck into their reassuring favourites when they’re completely content. And, according to a Canadian study published in Psychology and Behaviour 2010, it seems while women hanker after something sweet, men crave meat. No surprises there perhaps, but while women tend to feel better while eating their slice of chocolate cake, they feel guilty afterwards. Men, however, just felt satisfied and cosy.
My thoughts of comfort food lead to a confession: I still, and probably always will, go home for my birthday dinners so my mum or dad can cook me one of my favourite meals. Even if I’ve lived in other countries, when July 9th rolls around, they cheerily put up with me returning and requesting either a pasta dish, or steak and peppercorn sauce with chips, followed by French Fancies.
I think the reasons are two-fold – it’s nice to have dinner cooked for you on your birthday; but more importantly, these are meals that I associate with happy family dinners when I was growing up.
Another of my classic favourites, beef in black bean sauce with chips and rice is both internally warming and evocative of childhood memories. It’s this I turn to time and again when I want a sense of familial contentment. There’s nothing flash about it, but it’s all I need to be transported instantly back to childhood and the warmth of my family dining room.
I love the smell of family favourites wafting through the house – these are very provocative and comforting scents to me. They make the house smell wonderful and warm and I relax as soon as the smell invades my nostrils.
Comfort food doesn’t always have to be wrapped up in the past, though. As people’s taste buds evolve, so too do their favourite dishes. While once it may have been a tin of chicken and vegetable soup, now it could be a chicken vindaloo, which is my brothers trusty (and to me unfathomable) favourite dish.
I once lived with a beautiful friend, L, who has entertaining in her bones – an insatiable appetite and uncontrollable need to host. It was a match made in flat-mate heaven. I was a very eager participant in her foodie escapades. The preparation of the food is as much a comfort as the eating of it, for her, and in times of stress she’d chop away her worries.
She also introduced me to the pop up dining movement – there one minute, gone the next, they revolutionised the way Londoners were going to dinner. This was a chance to sample previously unthought of culinary combinations and new exotic flavours. It was such an education – and a fantastically enjoyable one, at that!
I love nothing more than prising gastronomic secrets from friends and acquaintances, storing them in my little notebook for a time when I will use them, and I often recall family dishes my mum has forgotten.
I’ve been fortunate enough to live with some great cooks in my life (my mum is included. She thinks she is a terrible cook but makes my favourite lasagne, potato bakes and of course the aforementioned after school classic, the toasted sandwich!) who have all graciously taught me a tip or two along the way. They are nothing but a helping hand though, a practical guide for those starting out, no matter how old, and most of all, a way of passing on a little love.
Go forth with courage, extract some recipes from your friends, purchase a book or two, subscribe to some YouTube cookery channels, roll up your sleeves, throw on your apron (and some good music!), learn by your mistakes, and try everything at least once. And remember… the real secret to the best comfort food is that it is made with love. You should be able to taste it with every bite!
I will be taking my own advice, with the help of some upcoming cooking lessons. Wish me luck. And bon appetite!