10 September 2012

Purely for medicinal reasons

The “purely for medicinal reasons” excuse is often wheeled out in our house.  However, not in regard to the tot of whisky or a glass of wine – but with regard to food.

I’ve spoken in the past, about how Shepherd’s Pie and Cottage Pie are magical things that can resurrect the erstwhile flagging Jenny into pink-cheeked health.  There has been more than one occasion when that has happened.

It doesn’t take much examination before you turn up the long-held belief that chicken soup will heal almost as much as a cup of tea will.

After all, just think how many times you’ve reached for the kettle in times of stress.  Okay, maybe you’re a coffee person, but the premise is the same – a hot drink will provide comfort and soothe a troubled soul.

I remember when (on far too many occasions) I’ve come round from a spell of being unconscious in hospital (after anaesthesia or on one spectacular occasion when I went to sleep at home and woke up 24 hours later in hospital) and have heard those words “would you like a cup of tea?”  Would I ever, yes please!

So it ever has been, for the cup of tea.  How many cups have been supped by wartime refugees who have been bombed out of their homes and supplied with a cup of comfort by the WRVS?  Or between women, sat at their kitchen tables and chewing the cud over their inconsiderate men or troublesome teenagers.

But food.  When did we start associating food with situations?  I suppose since the first Jewish mama insisted that her chicken soup would cure all known ills – or even before.  Think about the “soul food” of the Southern United States that originated with the black Africans.  Food that reminded them of where they came from originally, that took them back home for those few moments as they savoured those flavours.  True comfort food.

Summer in the U.K. (when we get a summer, that is) means being able to spend few weeks eating fresh foods in salads.  Lighter bites that take care of hunger but leave you able to enjoy a mild evening spent taking a walk, or just enjoying the sunset, with strawberries or ice cream for dessert.  Rarely does a requirement for comfort food arise during these times – unless something unusual happens.  (Although I would argue that strawberries & cream is the ultimate summer comfort food!).

Take this terrible summer that we’re currently being blighted with.  We should be enjoying barbecues with accompanying salads – not chicken casseroles, warming meat pies and carbohydrate-heavy cheese and potato dishes!

For some weeks now, I’ve been hankering after a dish that I normally only make in the depths of winter – it’s a variation on a Cottage Pie, involving a savoury minced beef base with a potato top, where the potato is cubed and tossed in a combination of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup, then baked.  I know, it sounds disgusting, but it is one of my guilty pleasures.  However, not in summer, for goodness’ sake!

But there you have it – in a nutshell.  It’s comfort food.  Food that makes you feel warm and protected from the heaving rain that’s going on just the other side of that wall.

I suppose it should be no surprise that soup kitchens serve soup.  Yes, it’s cheap to produce and feeds a lot of people – but it is the epitome of comfort food.  It isn’t hard to guess how welcome a bowl of steaming, savoury soup would be, if you’re homeless and out on the street in the weather we’ve been having.

I learned, just recently, about the Sikh Community Kitchen, or Langar.  At these community kitchens, food is served daily to all comers no matter what background or status, for free.  Interestingly, they will only serve vegetarian dishes, so that there should be no difficulty over dietary restrictions and all diners can eat as equals.

I suppose that food is the one thing that connects us all – whoever we are and whatever strata of life we come from.   No matter who you are, we all have to eat.

We are creatures of habit.  We like to endow things around us, including the types of food and rituals surrounding food, with an aura of normalcy so as to feel secure in our world.  A comment from Hubby got me thinking along these lines just recently.  We were contemplating what to do about dinner when returning from a trip to visit my Dad in a hospital out of town.  (He’s back home now and is fine, by the way).  We decided to stop in at our local Chinese Takeaway on the way home and pick up some of their spectacularly good Chow Mein.  Hubby commented that he was concerned that he was starting to associate going to this particular takeaway with stress – largely because whenever we have a stressful day that results in no time to cook, this is our takeaway of choice.  For me, it was quite the opposite, as the truly sublime Chow Mein that we get from there means a) I don’t have to cook and b) the problem is sorted – and in the best way possible.  I found it interesting how we both approached the situation from completely different corners.

I was also touched to hear that my dear old Dad, who following his surgery, had requested some Rhubarb & Apple Crumble for his dessert – in honour of this food blog.  So even here, food reaches out and provides comfort not only in its literal form, but in its emotional connections too.

Is it any wonder, then, that dieting can be such a disturbing – and potentially difficult – thing for us to do?  Our whole lives are invisibly and intangibly intertwined around food and eating, whether we like it or not!

Still, it’s probably best that I don’t get into the whole can of worms that is dieting.  Not today, anyway – I’ve just eaten a humungous Chow Mein.

This post was previously published on my Bournemouth Echo blog "Jenny's Week".


  1. I have been in and out of hospital 10-15 times for the last 3 years, and I have never been offered a cup of hot tea or coffee or anything, (but you do get yogurt twice a day). Not done here where I live. No tea trolley at all, visitors go to the coffee shop that rhymes with bucks, buy you one for $5. When I do get home, that's all I want, is a cup of tea in REAL cup, for the ultimate comfort. Then Mr. must cook me some shrimp and grits and my world comes back together. Food is a comfort wherever we are, and those who care, cook it up!

    1. From visiting my Dad in hospital recently, it seems as though the tea trolley is definitely a thing of the past. It's a terrible shame, I think. I can remember very well the little Arabic fellow who would bring the tea trolley around the wards at Rowley Bristow Hospital when I was there with a broken ankle. He was fascinated by Thomas The Tank Engine (which was on t.v. in the morning) and would grind to a halt in the middle of the ward, transfixed as Thomas went about his business. LOL

  2. Dieting is indeed a rotten old thing. If current diet thinking worked, there wouldn't be a massive sales industry behind it. There would just be one book, we'd read it, follow its advice and lose weight. Nah, but you know where I stand on that one.

    I do love eating and drinking with friends (by drinking I mean cup of tea, not alcohol). I always feel it's a generous, bonding thing - irrespective of where you are, who's paying etc. It's the sharing of a basic need and confirmation of valuing each other with time spent together. A chat is one thing, a chat over a cup to tea is another entirely.

    (I loathe the smell of coffee, it absolutely makes me want to be sick. I really can't handle it, which is very inconvenient in the modern world.)

    Me and the other half used to do takeaway/eat out a lot. The pleasure of sharing time and meal without having to some of that time cooking it. Sadly the nice, and nicely priced, cafes have all either disappeared or slowly morphed into panini bars. The nice takeways have started cutting quality and deliveries are unrealiable, so it's back to cooking!


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