It was the story of a little girl who used to defy bedtime on Fridays, with fierce fists and fiercer tears. She would wait, with both patience and pain, on the landing in the dark for her mum to return from work. Her little heart would skip a beat as she heard the quiet scrape of the key turning in the lock. That soothing sound meant that her mum was here to stay for the next two days, until the start of the working week took her away again. And although adulthood had taken my client away from that part of her life, the little girl part of her was very much present in our sessions now. The tears now however, as she told her story to me, were ones of sadness.
She was also a little girl who would turn down take-away. It didn’t matter that the nanny had culinary connections and seemed to be best friends with Ronald McDonald, KFC’s Colonel Sanders and the Burger King. “McDonald’s Mondays” had become a means to sugar-coat the pain of the separation that my client felt when her mum would leave that morning. But even when there was home-cooked food, my client wasn’t interested. “It’s not Mum food” she said, simply and straightforwardly. And poignantly. It was a statement of emptiness, full of loss and lack. My client’s true Happy Meal was Saturday evening when her mum would cook dinner at home. I asked her what “Mum food” was, and she replied: “You know, the usual. Shepherd’s pie. Spaghetti Bolognese. I don’t think she even made them properly. She didn’t really follow recipes and she’d always end up burning the food, or overcooking it. But every Saturday she would always cook something. Always.” The picture couldn’t have been cosier or clearer in my mind – it was dote cuisine, not Haute cuisine. It didn’t matter what was for dinner, all that mattered was that her mum was there, and that love, safety and security were being served together with the food. My client was talking about true comfort food.
Comfort has always been a staple ingredient in human nourishment. We reach for it to season our meals as much as we do salt, and in fact, comfort works exactly like salt, in the sense that it preserves our individual flavour, our sense of self. – a self that is loveable and worthy of the care of others. When we reach for comfort however, we are not reaching for something, but rather, someone. Science has long tried to come up with a recipe for comfort food, but it remains a challenge – people have very personal ideas about what exactly comfort food is. But what we do know is that comfort food seems to be associated with our social relationships. And what research also tells us is that comfort food isn’t just associated with people we feel generally close to or affection for. It’s more than that. Comfort food reminds us of our attachment relationships – those individuals in whom we seek security and comfort from when we are distressed. It’s a specific bond with another person, and it’s not interchangeable with anyone else – sometimes recipes don’t work if we substitute key ingredients, and people are much the same. To echo those poignant words of my client: “it’s not Mum”.
And this link between comfort food and comfort people is powerful; one recent study found that by filling your tummy with your personal comfort food, you are also filling your “social fuel tank” – you are fulfilling your human need to feel connected. Having a place at the table where comforting “Mum food”, or the equivalent, is served, means you have a place in the world – you belong. It’s noshtalgia, and I love that this word has its roots in the Greek words for “home”/”return” and “pain”. Separation from those we are attached to can be painful. We all need a home, a safe haven, to return to. This is the reason why comfort food comforts. To use Tesco’s words, it’s what a real Food Love Story is all about.
My recipe for “Mum Bolognese” with orzo was inspired by this story.