Piping hot chips. Fresh soup and a roll. Chicken Tikka Masala. Yorkshire puddings. A box of iced doughnuts. Chilli con carne. Nachos. Cheese on toast. Chocolate… well, any chocolate, really. We all have our comfort food staples – those failsafe products or recipes we can rely on to make us feel safe. They don’t have to be childhood classics but they do have to strike an emotional chord underneath that basic hunger instinct. We don’t want just anything to eat, because only comfort food can reassure us. It’s as though certain meals can restore our mood and pick us up when we’re down.
Of course, retailers exploit and fuel our associations with comfort food, like Bachelor’s Cup-a-Soup teamed with the slogan ‘A hug in a mug’ (which resorted in a court battle with Lemsip back in 2013 – those brands don’t seem so cuddly now). We often turn to soup when we’re cold or ill, because it’s simple but effective; Brits haven’t quite grasped the Spanish concept of gazpacho, or cold tomato soup, but we totally get the appeal of a simple can of Campbell’s Tomato – rightly turned into an art icon by Andy Warhol – or a homemade chicken broth. Most of us have memories of taking sick days off school when our mums fed us soup, and it made us feel less bogged down by colds or flu.
Healthy eating is a constant preoccupation for the media, which tends to oscillate between publishing headlines demonising ‘overweight’ and then ‘underweight’ people, questioning why they would be driven to overeat or deny themselves food. Disordered eating is a serious condition, and mixed messages from the media can hardly help matters; as the National Centre for Eating Disorders said, ‘it confers hidden meanings on food’.
Some of the most controversial headlines focus on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods linked to scientific studies. One moment it’s okay to tuck into eggs, next they’re a danger to our health. Recently the concept of ‘good’ fats has put butter back on the menu, and it can even be added to coffee if you’re so inclined. But how long until someone announces butter’s bad again?
Some celebrity food bloggers and chefs have made admirable attempts to tackle our sugar cravings – beetroot brownies, chia seed puddings and no-sugar flapjacks are on offer as healthier alternatives – but they do require willpower and the spare time to create snacks from scratch, instead of raiding the biscuit tin. Until these more sensible foods are convenient and affordable enough for us to grab on the go, it’s hard to see them dominating their full-fat-and-refined-sugar rivals.
When it comes to emotional healing, perhaps Elizabeth Gilbert best expressed the power of food during the Italian leg of Eat Pray Love. Moving to Rome in the wake of a failed marriage and a mid-life crisis, she self-soothes with classic Italian dishes. On visiting the best pizzeria in Naples, she writes: ‘I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair.’ She doesn’t count calories but just embraces all the flavours and fresh ingredients Italy has to offer.
Unlike Gilbert, not all adventurers and expats are fulfilled by eating their way around a newly adopted country. Homesickness and nostalgia play a part in expat life, which may explain why specialist stores selling British food do so well in America (trying to find a substitute for Marmite can otherwise be a pretty grim task). What’s more, any established expat community has national classics on the menu in its restaurants. They might not be made to your mum’s standard, but they bring a sense of home to the neighbourhood.
Food is a very basic part of our lives but, when we add comfort into the mix, it stands for so much more. Our cravings for familiarity and our nostalgia around certain dishes mean we seek out those classic foods that tickle our taste buds and flood us with memories. When handled in the right way, comfort food really does have the power to heal.