It’s funny how much we as a species have changed in the few millennia since we’ve been roaming the earth. I’m talking specifically about how we prepare and eat food. We’ve gone from hunting animals, cooking and eating them, to pretty much doing the same thing today (minus the hunting part) but with a much more flamboyant and almost ritualistic way of preparing food to eat.
We no longer have to hunt to eat which leaves us more time to labour over the preparation of our meals. These days we simmer, saute, slice and dice to create exuberant, colourful dishes that are as much for the eyes as well as the stomachs. But I wonder if our ancestors enjoyed ‘comfort food’ the way most of us do today. I wonder if they identified a succulent piece of a special plant or a rare part of a prized animal that with each bite brought them to new plains of ecstasy and joy with tastes that transported them to a place of warmth and safety.
Our comfort food plays an important part in our daily lives, and it doesn’t have to be junk food for it to be of the comfort type. It’s all food that transports us to a state of nostalgic paradise, a meditative bliss that is focused on the taste buds and their direct link to the brain through those amazing endorphins.
Being raised in Ireland, one of the most comforting foods from my childhood was Irish stew, which is a traditional dish of potatoes, carrots and onions cooked with chunks of mince meat, swimming in a rich beef gravy. Our mother always made this on a Sunday and we would devour it after attending Mass. We would eat it with sliced bread with thick layers of butter. It was cheap and easy to prepare, but it was a hearty meal that still conjures up fond memories when I eat it. I’ve only tried to make it once, and to some success, and I’ll do so again when the winter nights creep in again. There’s nothing like a steaming bowl of stew to ward off the biting cold.
I recently read a beautiful article about a food critic who was asked by a dying man which eateries to visit before his impending death. His answer did not feature the fanciest restaurants or the pretentious places that most of us could only dream of affording. He gave the man a list of places whose food inspired warmth and nostalgia, the realisation that an event was taking place, a memory created, simply by experiencing it. It made me think of last meals and what I would choose. It’s a difficult question and it wouldn’t include the most delicious foods or the most expensive restaurants I have yet to visit. It would feature the people who were with me and the feelings I had at the time.
My other half spoke tonight about the first meal I cooked for him — turkey stir fry. It was dry, and far too spicy for him (I wondered why his face was so red at the time but I presumed he was nervous). Yet, it was delicious, he has claimed ever since (I give him the benefit of the doubt).
One of my all-time favourite foods, however, is porridge. I may have shared this with you before but there was a particular bowl of porridge that will always be the best bowl of porridge I’ll ever have as long as I live. It was the pot I made for myself and my mother a few months before she died. We sat munching in silence as our spoons scraped along the side of our bowls, heaped with porridge and blueberries. My mum loved porridge, and that was one her final meals. I’ve always hoped that as we sat there together she experienced happy memories of her own childhood while savouring the soft creamy oats.
Comfort food doesn’t have to be gourmet to be the best thing you’ve ever tasted, what truly makes the taste is the memory of the love that surrounds it.
— Christina Curran is freelance journalist based in Northern Ireland