I am deep within the annual existential crisis otherwise know as The January Spring Clean. Literally so: I’m up to my knees in books, flung from their roosts on the book shelves in a desperate attempt to Get Rid Of This Infernal Clutter. I lift one at random and blow a film of dust from its decorative cover: Arabesque by Claudia Roden, one of my favourite cookbooks …
The cover alone, with its sinuous Arabic characters, burnished gold and opulent pomegranate lifts me out of this pile of vinegar splattered books in a scruffy suburban living room, and whirls me, Dervish style, into a spice laden, shisha scented café, set deep within the flamingo walls of an ancient Medina.
I put it back on its shelf. The pile for the charity shop is looking sadly scant. The problem is this: cookbooks, for me, are like travel. Reading from them, shopping for their ingredients, cooking them and then eating them... They are like tickets for a bullet train, direct and high speed into the heart of someone else’s world. Or taking a bite of someone else’s Madeleine.
In fact, now I have small kids and big costs, it’s become my primary escape. But standing amid the literary litter, my mind drifted from the Medina to an interview I had done a year previously with the book’s author. “Today, in our society,” she told me, her voice deep and undulating like the smoke of Egyptian incense. “Food has stopped being part of our identity: recipes are no longer passed down through generations of women in a family.”
I do a count. I have 39 cookbooks. Let’s say each one contains 100 recipes. I have, in my possession, a total of 3,900 different recipes, covering 19 different regimes, rages and regions. But not a single recipe that’s been passed down through my family. Unless, that is, you count eggy bread.
Is all this food escapism a bit... inauthentic, I begin to wonder? Am I like a package tourist, taking snaps in front of all the key monuments, but missing something more profound?
“Since women’s role in society has changed in the developed world, today our food influences are not what our mothers and grandmothers have taught us.” Claudia continued. “They are what we see in the media and on the internet. In the past, home cooks would put a big dish or a pot on the table and people would help themselves. Today a lot of people try to cook like chefs when they entertain. Because of food photography in magazines and in books, some spend as much time plating their food as cooking it.”
Personally, I’m quite pleased with the ways in which my life differs to that of my great grandmother. I’m not likely, any time soon, to raise 14 children, rub my knees raw while scrubbing the floor of the coal-dust that’s come in with my husband, or die of typhoid. Still, Alongside all the important things we’ve gained, have we lost something? Something essential about the magic of cooking and sharing that food?
Has this generation taken a definitive step away from hundreds of years of food culture? Do we see, cook and eat food in a radically different way to our forebearers?
A creature of my times, there is only one place I can turn to answer this question: facebook. I post a request, asking people for their definitive comfort food. When I come back after a cup of tea, a tsunami of responses have flooded in. It’s a subject on which people are unexpectedly passionate. I scroll through dozens of responses. They are all from adults, all living sophisticated lives, but almost without exception the foods they choose are... dated.
Semolina, macaroni cheese, milk puddings, potatoes mashed or baked with cheese... Every suggestion that comes in is a food from their childhood, not the cookbooks from which they now eat as adults. They are cheap, simple and warm. They use ingredients that would, largely, be familiar to their great-grandparents, and their grandparents too. And they are hearty. Almost without exception, they come with stories of having eaten them when they were off school and sick. And are now dug out only when hungover or heartbroken.
Do we not cook food that comforts ourselves and others anymore? And if not, why not? When I cook for others, I cook to excite, to experiment, to celebrate, occasionally to show off. I cook for any number of different alliterative verbs but I rarely cook simply to comfort. Except, significantly, when I’m feeding my children. Then, the instinct kicks in and they get food that is simple, cheap, warm and nutritious. Nurturing food. Nursery food. They even sound almost the same.
In all other cases, comfort food is the stuff of guilty pleasure, to be eaten alone in your pyjamas or in front of the telly, not with guests.
I scroll through the facebook responses. Everyone mentions a different meal and I wonder what they might have in common, apart from being relics from our childhoods? What made them comfort? Why did they make us feel better? They are simple. They are cheap. They cover the basic food groups. But is there something deeper? Something that goes further than a shopping list of ingredients and a tick-list of food groups and vitamins? Something in their texture, their scent, temperature or their preparation that conveys a psychological or physiological sense of comfort? Is their efficacy personal? Does one person’s comfort food work for another? Or are they culturally specific, their effect stopping at borders and shores? In which case, can a recipe contain code, like a strand of DNA? Can it be unravelled to reveal history, cultural connections, a profound belonging?
Can history, or the simple intention of caring, be felt through the act of eating? I begin to research the classic comfort food, chicken soup. Why does it work? Several hours in, I am none the wiser. It’s ability to comfort and heal the sick remains, largely, a mystery. Some doctors think its benefits are largely psychosomatic. We are taught that it heals, it tastes warm and good, therefore we simply feel better on eating it. Others say that it’s simply a question of its temperature and fluids: the steam clears congestion while the fluid hydrates and flushes out bugs. Dr. Stephen Rennard, a pulmonary expert at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, recently went further. Since colds are associated with inflammation which, in turn, triggers white blood cells to migrate, Rennard disappeared into his lab to test the effect of chicken soup on these cells. What he found was that, in the presence of chicken soup, fewer cells migrated from one side of a chamber across a filter to the other side.
His theory is that the soup, or more accurately, some ingredient within it, blocks or slows the amount of cells congregating in the lung area, relieving the development of cold symptoms. So chicken soup really works. But why “The biologically active material is unknown,” Rennard admits. “It may be that some complex chemistry takes place, that the entire concoction makes it work.”
Mystery unsolved. Or rather, deepened. Because as I researched, I realised that almost every culture under the sun has their own chicken soup recipe. With the addition of noodles in Thailand, chipotle in Mexico, okra in West Africa, garlic in France... It looks a little different wherever you taste it but wherever you go in the world, chicken soup counts among the definitive comfort foods.
And so I decide to embark on a year long experiment. This year, I will open a comfort food café. It will run once a month, every month, in my home. I will cap the number of guests at ten but otherwise there are no restrictions: anyone, of any age, heritage, background or interests as long as they feel in need of comfort. The guest list will work on a purely first come, first served basis in the hope that we’ll get a weird and wonderful mix of people in order to make this experiment as unbiased as possible.
Here’s how it will work. Every month, these waifs and strays, friends, relatives, neighbours, friends of friends or the postman, will be welcomed into our house.
Every time, there will be no ceremony. There will be no tidying the house, no fancy starters, no carefully curated guest list. Instead, there will be a big pot in the middle, as advised by Claudia. Every time it will be chicken soup. But each time, it will be cooked in a different tradition.
We’ll discuss the recipe and the flavour. But we’ll also try to analyse whether it works for us. How it makes us feel, here in this scruffy London front room, regardless of which far flung continent it comes from or which various ailments - from grief to heartache, man flu and money worries - are gathered round the table each time.
Are we missing out by failing to cook and eat comfort food together? Or are its magical properties stored somewhere other than the recipes themselves: in the basic act, perhaps, of getting together without judgement and without ceremony?
Have we lost recipes, or just the simple tradition of comforting each other?
Aided by chicken soup, cheap wine and chat, we’ll let the many Madeleine moments waft round the room, intermingling. Perhaps we’ll find out.
I'm going to need your help. Please tweet me @hattiegarlick if you want to get involved by contributing family recipes, anecdotes, or even the guestlist!