Comfort food. What is it really? Is it the kind of meal we turn to when our spirits are low? Or do we yearn for it when we are feeling happy? Is it well served for both highs and lows? What is it about certain dishes that make us crave them depending on our mood?
Some tastes take you right back to the relatively uncomplicated days of childhood, invoking the feeling that someone is looking after you. Mostly, it is some typical home fare, the kind that is served simple, hot and painstakingly prepared.
Is it the associated memories that make it comforting?
Apart from what we eat, I’ve been thinking about the ways we eat. In my lifetime, I can say I have only met a handful of people who are indifferent to food, people who eat because they have to, but do not really savour it.
If you think about it, although in the past, there may not have been so many conversations about it, eating (let’s say dining to encompass the broad experience) has always been a substantial aspect of every culture in the world.
With the rise in technology in terms of social media particularly, and of course, the massive development of transportation and preservation methods, tastebuds could experience cuisines from all around the world, with ingredients quite alien to the local environment. The foodie culture that has mushroomed has crossed ethnic barriers and, more than ever, cooking has become a major subject of conversation. People love to talk about food. That’s why cooking shows are so popular.
It is easy to say a large proportion of the world is willing to experience new flavours and to experiment. A lot of traditional fare has been co-opted into the bases of the nouvelle cuisine that flaunts itself at the high end of the expensive fine dining market.
Yet, at the heart of all the connections to food is its evocative experience. When you celebrate, when you are blue, you turn to the dishes that remind you of something comforting.
Which brings me to something that has also been tugging at my mind.
Depression makes many people turn to food for solace. I was talking to someone about an overweight sportsman, and was told he eats a lot of fast food, but more significantly, that he eats when he is depressed and anxious. I hadn’t thought about that element.
But it struck me that when we talk about poor eating habits, we tend to focus on the unhealthy choices we make in terms of the types of food we consume. So we admonish people to cut down on the fried stuff, the sugary drinks and the altogether toxic combinations that come with the fast food industry.
I have been trying to encourage people to think differently about what they put into their bodies, and I really believe every little modification can make a difference to improving long-term health.
However, I have been thinking about the variables and how many factors can influence what we eat and how much we eat. I have to confess I have found myself struggling again to manage the increase in my weight. I can’t say I eat junk food. It is rare for me to partake, and when I do, my body reacts instantly. So while I have renewed my commitment to more regular exercise—fortunately, working from home has given me more flexibility there, I’ve been trying to figure out where I am going wrong.
It really has been through a lack of discipline. I am very good during the day, but I am a night person. My energy is higher come nightfall so I stay awake later and, out of boredom, I peck away.
To make matters worse, as much as I enjoy cooking, I can barely stand to be in a hot kitchen on these incinerating days, so I prefer to cook at night. And with the CPL on, I have been cooking and munching during the matches. Right, I’ve said it out, that means I’ve acknowledged my issue and now I have to work on how to cut it out. Enough about me.
But what about all the people who eat because they are sad and lonely and depressed? Not long ago, I was saying that based on the scant statistics, we are a Caribbean society with a high rate of mental illness—one in four was the conservative estimate.
How many of us are eating because we are in a troubled state of mind? How many of us are reaching for those comfort foods to find just a little moment of pleasure to ease the pressures of our lives? We know about bulimia and anorexia as eating disorders. There are others that have now been classified as disorders and, as with many health issues, there are different contributing factors: genetics, hormones, mental conditions, environment.
So as the Ministry of Health tries to ramp up its campaign to promote healthier lifestyles, there is another dimension that should be added to its focus. It isn’t going to be just about managing what we eat and how much, or our physical activities; it will have to include looking at why we eat, and what we mean by comfort food.
THE AUTHOR is also an editor and a cricket historian.