Mashed potato. With heaps of butter and salt and pepper. More specifically , a fork full of mashed potato, with a lump of cold butter, left for a second until it just starts to melt, and given a good grind of sea salt and black pepper.
Toast. My mum’s homemade bread, seeded and crusty, toasted just right, and then smothered in raspberry jam.
I have a long list of comfort foods. It ranges from the more predictable to the unexpected, yet comfort food is one of the most subjective culinary categories around. But what makes a ‘predictable’ comfort food? Are there uniting factors – fat, sugar, salt – and are some comfort foods universal? My personal list is evidently dominated by butter-based items, but what even causes me to feel, in some strangely innate way, that these foods are a security?
The notion of comfort food becomes ever more relevant when you are away from what makes you feel secure. In times of difficulty or pain, change or loss, or, perhaps most obviously in the case of university students, times of homesickness, our desire for comfort food can be unbearable. I spent my first term of university compiling a list of all the items I wanted to eat and be cooked upon my return to my family. To me, these foodstuffs are fundamental to what makes a home, home.
It is not just the act of eating which is the comfort; it is the smell, the process, the memory. Although comfort food is often constituted by the less challenging ingredients and recipes, it is never simply about absent minded refuelling.
So what goes into the creation of a comfort food? What exactly places such items on a pedestal of reassurance above all others? Perhaps it is as simple as science. Appealing flavours can induce the release of opiates, while sweet or high calorie foods release serotonin as well – chemicals which cause us to relax and feel happier. But such reactions will still ultimately rely on the association of food and memory, developing a regular food into something sentimental and reassuring.
For me,comfort foods are those which held some role of importance in my childhood. When I have a bowl of leek and potato soup, suddenly I am small, in winter, sitting at the kitchen table, being looked after by my mother. When I have custard, proper custard that is, I am, once again, with my father. I’m on my tiptoes as I peer up and into the pan on the stove of bubbling yellow, which is stirred, oh so carefully, ready to be poured into the trifle – the centrepiece of any party.
Comfort foods are not created in a vacuum. They are a melting pot of experience and culture and they can teach us about our ingrained similarities, as well as our differences which are so important to our identities. Just as no two individuals will have the same comfort foods, no two countries will have the same body of food associations, and so what it comes to represent is perhaps something more symbolic than we initially realise as we spoon custard into our mouths.
I adore experimenting with new foods and cuisines. I love learning more about how ingredients can be shaped and reshaped into innovative forms. But innovation isn’t everything. My list of comfort foods is ever-growing as my separation from them extends, but this is never a bad thing. I can recreate a dish of solace in my college kitchen, I can be consoled with a bowl of goodness, but at the end of term, when I am once more swaddled in the blankets of home, all I really want is a reminder that I am safe. All I really want is a fork full of mashed potato.