My comfort food: a genealogy

PieWhat is comfort food anyway? To me, it has to do with memories, love, nostalgia, carbs and shame. Yes, shame. It’s probably because when you grow up with a mum who’s a bit of a health freak (although she can easily be spotted dunking biscuits in Nutella), eating anything that’s fried and rich and delicious comes with just a pinch of shame, and tends to be done in secret.

When I was in school, I remember going to the pizza shop and buying piping hot supplis, with that crispy breadcrumb shell and the melting mozzarella heart, then eating them so quickly they would burn the tip of my tongue, before scrunching up the greasy brown paper bag and knocking on the door. Then I would have lunch, of course.

When my mum worked until four and I was alone at lunch, then I’d have a proper feast. I’d pop to the supermarket on my way home from school and buy mini salamis, Sofficini (one of my absolute favourite things when I was a kid –think little crepe pockets, stuffed with gooey, cheesy tomato sauce and deep fried – then frozen) and a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream. And then I’d eat all of it (the little fried crepes, the salami, the whole pint of Macadamia Brittle ice cream) in front of the telly and hide the cardboard boxes. I’d have some salad, too – so I could tell my mum I had had salad for lunch and only lie by omission, which seemed significantly better than ‘regular’ lying to a logical, somewhat cynical sixteen-year-old with an unquenchable hunger and too much pocket money for her own good.

Then there’s my mum’s cherry tomato pasta. It’s simple and perfect, sun-drenched cherry tomatoes blistered in olive oil with a pinch of sea salt and some basil until they go gooey, sweet and tart and savoury at the same time, with copious amounts of pecorino cheese. It’s the kind of recipe you could make with one hand while reading a book and having a pleasant conversation about the weather, but my mum’s is truly special – maybe because she would make it for me.

When you leave home you start really appreciating others making food for you, because it’s the purest, simplest act of love – to me, when someone hands you you a steaming bowl of pasta they made especially for you, it’s like they’re handing you a piece of them. My mum has always been convinced that if you cook when you’re in a bad mood, those feelings find their way into the food and they poison it with bitter, sour notes. As a cynical teenager of course I thought it was the most absurd thing, but then I found out Salman Rushdie seems to believe the same. I like that idea, anyway. That if you cook with love, or someone else does for you, your food will always taste nice. I guess it depends on how hungry you are.

 

Lemon poppy seed loaf
My mum also makes an amazing pasta with tuna. She uses big, juicy plum tomatoes, canned tuna, chili flakes and parsley. It’s the most more-ish thing you’ll ever eat – it shouldn’t be, because it’s really just tuna and tomatoes, but that sauce is one of the tastiest, most fragrant I’ve ever tasted.

Incidentally, pasta with tuna is also one of the two things my dad can cook. Yes, two. My whole life, I only remember my dad cooking either pasta with tuna or pasta fredda (pasta salad). I have no idea how he survived when he lived on his own – this was Italy in the 80s, where Pot Noodle didn’t exist and ready meals just weren’t a thing. His pasta with tuna tastes like canned tuna swimming in oil, and it looks like it too.

Another one of my favourite comfort foods is my auntie’s ricotta cheesecake: a creamy and indulgent cake with a thick, wobbly ricotta crust and jewel-like blueberries. She lives in a tiny village in the Alps and used to make it every single time I went to visit – I can’t remember why. I suppose she made it once and I loved it so much she decided it was my favourite. And maybe it is. I remember eating a beautiful, wobbly slice of that creamy goodness while sipping elderflower syrup, made with the flowers my aunt had picked, in a tall glass of fizzy water. See, comfort to me is about that: warmth, family and good, hazy memories. It’s about nostalgia, flavours I long for, places I haven’t seen in too long, green mountains against blue skies, and late summer thunderstorms.

Meringue
It’s also about instant ramen. Yes, yes, instant ramen. Noodles. A bowl of hot, spicy, steamy instant noodles.
Here’s where I stand on British noodles: no. Just no. Whether it is Pot Noodles or Super Noodle, whenever they are made in Britain I just can’t bring myself to eat them. They taste like watered down chicken stock and salt, and have rubbery noodles and floating sweetcorn that never quite re-hydrates properly. No.

When it comes to noodles, they have to be made in Korea, Singapore, Japan. This is my favourite brand – they’re hot, so hot it hurts, but they are amazing. I started buying them when I was in school, seduced by the utter simplicity of the preparation, by how boiling water from the kettle could transform a square pack of dried noodles into a steaming bowl of perfection. I remember eating them on grey and cold afternoons, my eyes a little watery, a runny nose, a yellowed book. They are still, to me, a liquid blanket for those cold, lazy days when I want something warming but just can’t bring myself to cook.

When I started uni I had a regular post-exam treat, this cheesy frozen mash with bits of ham in it. I’d come home with a headache, make myself a bowl of this and just be in my happy place for the rest of the day, topping up my tea every hour or so and watching silly TV shows in my favourite pajamas. The day of an exam is always special, the feeling of having achieved something, that those two hours of your day have been so productive you don’t really have to do anything else. And the cheesy mash.

When I moved to Berlin, pretzels were my go-to comfort food. Shiny, chewy soft pretzels, with crystals of salt the size of my fist. I’d have them for breakfast, as a snack, before a night out and after – to soak up the alcohol, you know. 

Bread has always been the ultimate comfort food. I’d toast it and drizzle olive oil, and eat it standing by the sink on a lazy Saturday afternoon while my dad watched the football; I would spread some butter on it and dunk it in soft boiled eggs with my mum, chatting about school and boys, or slice my grandad’s ciaiuscolo and eat it between two slices of proper, crusty bread.

I do wish my comfort food resembled fruit salads or boiled broccoli. It just doesn’t. But I’ll have bread, butter and sugar any day.

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