Something happened this month that left me feeling a little insecure: I was featured in the May edition of ‘The Psychologist’. My article is about me and my mum. Leaving, and losing. Separating. A search for comfort. Eating. Reuniting through that eating. The strange situation of cooking a meal to somehow try and bring about a sense of ‘home’. On reflection, my insecurity was probably about lots of things, not least the visibility that came with my name and narrative being on the front cover, together with a photo of my comfort food dish. Who’d have thought a big, rich plate of spag bol could say so much about a person’s story? But that’s the thing about food stories; they matter. They cut straight to what’s neediest about us.
‘Comfort food’, however, is a term I am not entirely comfortable with. Neither is Bee Wilson. She recently wrote that ‘Comfort food should really be called trauma food. It’s what you cook and eat to remind you you’re alive when you are not entirely sure this is true.’ Trauma is exactly that. It blurs your sense of what is real and not real. Especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Whether it’s trauma with a big ‘T’, like when Bee’s husband left her after 22 years of marriage, or trauma with a small ‘t’, like when I left home for the first time, there are very few things as traumatic to our psyche as being abandoned or separated. Learning that you can lose love. That love changes.
In therapy, people often talk about experiences just like Bee’s. The pain when a one-to-one bond is severed. Triangles in relationships. The trials and tribulations of triangles are the stuff of therapy; it is the shape synonymous with the most formative relationship experiences. But in the field of attachment, circles are just as important. The ‘Circle of Security’ is a way of representing our two most fundamental needs: a need to have a secure base to go out from and a safe haven to come back to. At this time, where are you ‘on the circle’? Do you need to turn out towards the world or do you need to return home? We can think of food in the same way: where are you ‘on the plate’? Comfort food is the return home. A return to feeling after the freeze response of trauma. A reminder that you have been loved. Because at some point before you were cooking this dish, someone else made it for you. That’s why it is often a dyad dinner, a meal of ‘me and you’. Mother’s eggy toast or praised chicken or spag bol.
‘How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved’ Freud once said. You can be bolder on the plate too. If however you’ve been though trauma that has broken or bruised your heart, you don’t want bold, adventuresome food. No going on culinary bear hunts. You can’t get over it. Nor can you get under it to understand it. You get through it with food that is a safe haven. Your personal plate of security. Memories, textures and colours of a food life that only you know. Familiar food. Old love. Real comfort food is security food. Food that makes us feel more sure about who we are and who we have loved.
To return to the story I started with… I called my mum to tell her my front cover news, and to revive my sense of security a little. She became very animated when I told her that 69,000 people would now know her version of Spaghetti Bolognese. But that wasn’t all she did on the phone that day. She gave me time and space. She listened generously. She attuned to my feelings. Safe haven restored, I then (as usual) had a cooking question for her:
‘Mum, do you think I could make a shepherd’s pie with the Bolognese?’
I guess you could say I came full circle. Sort of.
This story inspired my recipe for ‘Mum Bolognese’ shepherd’s pie.