When I need a particular kind of boost, I turn to potato salad with sweet pickle. My comfort food choices are all excuses for sugar or fat, and if they arrive in the same bowl, I consider myself blessed.
For most of us, comfort food does far more than simply meet a physical need. It satisfies our craving for something that is emotionally nourishing. That desire is the inspiration for Jamie Oliver’s new book, Comfort Food. One back-cover blurb calls it “a bold new book of timeless recipes for soul-satisfying food.”
There is, of course, a cultural component to comfort food because it’s not the same across borders and cultures, but the feeling it engenders is, and that feeling defines it. Part of the charm of comfort food can come from its simplicity: it predates food porn and artisan this and that. Most significantly, it comes with what Chef Jamie calls “bubbles of memories”—it’s food connected with people, with time and place. I know that part of the pleasure I take from potato salad comes from the memories it evokes of the family picnics and potluck church dinners of my small-town past. Prune whip? Not so much.
I heard about Oliver’s book when he was a guest on CBC Radio. He spoke with his customary enthusiasm, and listening to him I kept conjuring a big happy puppy. What I found particularly interesting was the extent to which he had reworked the original recipes. (He spent a whole day combining and re-combining just three ingredients to make a simple cheese toasty.) However, it was his take on Pot Noodles that sparked my thinking about the power of memory and the ways we rework the past.
Pot Noodles are chemicals and dough in a container to which you add boiling water–for ease and convenience (if not for fat) they beat mac and cheese. Oliver understands people’s emotional attachment to Pot Noodles, but he also appreciates the fact that for the makers of such a product shelf life trumps nutrition. Given his efforts to promote healthy eating, he made sure his recipe mimics but improves on the original. He reworked the reality—which seems to me is often the case with memory in general. How often is nostalgia an ache for a past that never really existed?
As writer Peter de Vries noted decades ago, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and last summer, James Woollcott observed in a Vanity Fair piece that these days nostalgia is harder to justify given that the realities of the past are now so well docu-mented. Nostalgia relies on our perception of the past, and those perceptions get harder to sustain.
Still, that is our work as human beings, isn’t it—reworking our understanding of the past in light of the present? The past is of value only when it serves the future. Memory is a form of hope, said Timothy Findley. And that makes memory the ultimate comfort food.
All food is comfort food. Maybe I just like to chew. Lewis Black