The Profound Comfort of Food

When I fell at school and scraped open my knee my teacher gave me a Marie biscuit while she called my mom to come fetch me. After the events of 9/11, supermarkets and restaurants in New York reported a spike in mashed potato sales. When I graduated with my Master’s degree, we celebrated with pancakes at Salvation Café in Joburg. In The Big Bang Theory, even socially-inept Sheldon understands that the correct thing to do when someone is upset is to bring them a hot beverage. When we finished the final kilometre of the 56km-long Whale Trail hike, we rewarded ourselves with Coke, pizza and ice cream. A Hindu blessing is not complete without a piece of sweet barfi. And even Jesus decided to be immortalised as a carbohydrate. For humans, food is used to comfort, to reward, to incentivise, to celebrate, to mourn, to ritualise.

Ruby Tandoh recently revived her wonderful Good Food Things series: lists of ordinary yet extraordinarily satisfying and enjoyable food-related experiences, which serve as a source of comfort and pleasure at a time so rife with worry and uncertainty. Tandoh emphasises the unfussy normalcy of these Good Food Things – floating ravioli, Nik Naks, a rediscovered snack, molten cheese – implying that ‘comfort food’ isn’t so much a criteria-driven category of food; rather, even the most insignificant and commonplace of food experiences can spark joy. The very banality of food is what is most reassuring about it. If you ask anyone what their idea of comfort food is, the answers are often overwhelmingly beige: cheesy, carby, creamy, eggy. One’s comfort food declarations are often accompanied by some sort of justification – “my grandmother made this”, “we always have this for Iftar”, “I’m embarrassed by how British it is”, “it sounds gross but I promise you it’s good”. We choose comfort foods in part for what they contain – often serotonin-producing things like sugar, fat, and starch take centre stage – but also because of the associated nostalgia. 

First appearing in a 1966 article on childhood obesity, under the callously succinct headline ‘Sad Child May Overeat’, the term “comfort food” referred to the fatty, starchy meals eaten by sad, lonely children to make them feel better about being sad and lonely. This reductive view of the powers of food neglects the comforting role of food in a world increasingly characterised by the voluntary and involuntary movement of people. Food is the easiest thing to cling to for members of diasporas, and so is often the most meaningful aspect of a culture. It is inherently political. It makes sense: even without displacement, most cultures of the world use food in celebration and ritual, placing an importance on certain food that transcends just basic nourishment. For the white American, tacos and enchiladas are the best kind of TexMex. But for the Mexican immigrant, it’s a cruelly ironic bastardisation of home. For me, challah recipes are cool because they always make two loaves, but to Jewish people this has religious and historical significance that I and my secular greed don’t appreciate. Comfort food means childhood, nostalgia, memory, but it also means culture, heritage, belonging, and identity.

My personal choices when it comes to comfort food are therefore predictable: things associated with important people in my life, my childhood, and my heritage. My Greek-Egyptian grandmother’s unfussy spaghetti with butter and salt, slightly crispy on the bottom, which leaves you with a greasy chin and a beaming tummy. Or my English gran’s tuna pasta – slightly overcooked penne, with bechamel sauce and tinned tuna – which is obscenely squelchy but tastes of happiness. My Xhosa nanny’s phuthu pap, eaten hot with crunchy sugar and cold milk, which tastes of love and a bit of sadness that she’s gone (and echoes centuries of black women mothering white children). My best friend’s mom’s crunchy potato tahdig, heaped onto a plate and only half-jokingly fought over at the table, which tastes of indestructible friendship and adopted family. My boyfriend’s mother’s masala tea, which he now recreates almost flawlessly at home, which tastes of love, acceptance and excitement for the future. My mom’s hummus, eaten with everything imaginable, which is one of the first things I learned to make on my own. Greek stuffed vegetables; Spanish paella cooked by my grandfather over the fire at family events; slices of bread, slathered in tomato sauce, loaded with cheese and grilled until melty by my dad on a Sunday evening to curb the pre-Monday blues; Five Roses tea, with milk and half a sugar (ideally made by someone else) for dunking Marie biscuits and Ouma rusks; croissants and rooibos cappuccinos after Parkrun, even if they take an hour to arrive at the table; and about a hundred other things – all personal, all delightful, all happy.

Phuthu pap

2½ cups water

Pinch of salt

2½ cups mielie meal

Sugar, to taste

Milk, optional

Bring the water and salt to the boil, then pour in the mielie meal and don’t stir it. If that goes against your culinary sensibilities, you may give the pot a bit of a wobble. Turn down the heat, pop the lid on, and simmer for 5 minutes. You may now breathe a sigh of relief and stir everything together, then cover again and steam over a veeeery low heat for about 30 minutes, occasionally fluffing it up with a spoon or fork, until cooked through and crumbly. Scoop into bowls and serve with your favoured combination of milk and sugar. I like lots of cold milk and a little bit of sugar, while my sister likes it dry with lots of sugar.

Yaya’s pasta with butter

Spaghetti

Salted butter

Salt and pepper

That’s it

Boil the spaghetti until al dente. Drain, then return to the pan. Add in as much butter as your little heart desires, then stir over a high heat until some of it catches at the bottom (I was never sure if my gran intended for this to happen, but it is Absolutely Necessary). Grind on some salt and pepper. Watch Anastasia and be happy.

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