January marks the beginning of a new project for 2017, one that explores our connections to the food we grow and eat. Each month we’ll be bringing you a new story and highlighting an aspect of food culture happening in our community and at large.
For many the comforts of hearth and home are what see us through the darkest months of the year. For some that means a good book or movie and a cozy spot on the couch. For others it means time spent in the kitchen, creating warmth and good aromas. For most of us however it means eating comfort food.
What is it about comfort food that we yearn for and what triggers this craving? The comfort food of my youth is tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich. Admittedly the soup came out of a can and the cheese slice from a plastic wrapper but I can still get the same good vibes from a slightly upgraded version of this meal. Aged cheddar, thickly sliced five grain bread and homemade tomato soup with pesto elevate this childhood classic into an adult treat.
These are the foods we tend to favour when we feel a need to connect with others and a desire for security and warmth. This is why much of what we long for is the kind of food that is served up at family gatherings and holidays; we have attached meaning to these meals if only sub-consciously.
Comfort foods vary by culture and tastes as well; seal meat, kimchi and paella are all comfort foods for someone. Tourtière and sugar pie put me back in my grandmother’s kitchen but maybe it’s potato latkes and rugelach that do it for you. Some favourites also arise from different experiences. Revisiting the first meals that a student learned to cook away from home or recreating foods eaten on vacation can bring back a sense of time and place that you want to return to. For instance, attempts to recreate real Scottish porridge can become a delicious obsession. Was it the steel cut oats, the long soaking time, the added milk or cream? So many variations to explore and eat.
Author Deborah Madison’s book What We Eat When We Eat Alone tells another story about our preferences for comfort food. Food choices are deeply personal and it is only when we are alone that we sometimes indulge in food that we wouldn’t eat with others, or perhaps more accurately that we wouldn’t want to share. Risotto might seem like a hassle to some people but the constant, methodical stirring can seem almost like a meditation at times, allowing your hands to take over and your mind to be silent. “First coat the rice with butter in the pan, now pour in the first ladle of stock, stir until absorbed. Repeat until the rice has released its starches and is thick and creamy.” Clearly, comfort can be found in the making as much as in the eating. Supper won’t be on the table in a hurry but it will be delicious when it is. These instructions and rituals we follow are as much a part of the process as the actual fork to mouth. Like the Danish concept of “hygge” we are seeking to make not just winter but everyday life more enjoyable by incorporating small changes that brighten up the dark days. Cozy knit blankets, steaming pots of fragrant tea and baking that is redolent of warming spices all make our home a welcoming, comforting place to be.
Like your mother’s spiky handwritten recipes or her annotations on the Betty Crocker recipe cards you inherited, following one of these recipes with such headings as Family Favourites and Come For Coffee assures of results that are restorative, and isn’t that really what we’re all looking for?