A WORD IN THE HAND: COMFORT
Her hagfish is my bananas and custard, and everything’s gonna be OK
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Comfort is a relative concept. As are all concepts, like antidisestablishmentarianism, and art. Antidisestablishmentarianism began as a political movement supported by those who were not comfortable with the proposed disestablishment of the Church of England in the 16th century. It has been adopted as a term used by art movements supported by those who are uncomfortable about the taking down of other established (or disestablished) art movements ... but let’s rather talk about food.
In food terms, for all those fortunate enough to choose what they eat, comfort food comes from the same place. I’ve asked many people what food gives them most comfort, and no matter whether that person is a Michelin-starred chef or a siren clinging by her scaly tail to a cliff near Sorrento, the answer is the same. It’s what their mothers (or their fathers, uncles, grandmothers, foster parents, siblings or carers, depending on who comforted them as infants) fed them.
That could be porridge or tripe or snails or garlic soup or okra pancakes or truffles marinated in the juice of sheep’s brains. Or, in the case of sirens, whelks and slimy hagfish. For me, comfort meant my mother’s bananas and custard. Firm bananas thinly sliced and immersed in thick, hot, homemade custard — the sort that gets a skin on it when left to stand. None of that newfangled carton-packaged nonsense.
It was a thing I could eat even when the world was at its darkest and my brow was fevered and it didn’t seem as though unicorns were really real. The bananas and custard made them so, and all manner of things were well.
There was comfort, too, in my father’s potato salad: floury potatoes coated in real mayonnaise with bits of vivid green parsley sticking to them. I couldn’t resist this, even in my pre-teens when it was important to look like Olivia Newton-John in her black Grease latex suit. Potato salad is best when eaten slightly warm. Olivia will keep if chilled.
When we reach adulthood – another relative concept – these things change. In the first years of my young-old phase, one of the world’s finest comforts was a rich, red Bloody Mary (double vodka, please, and hold the celery) with a plate of creamy scrambled eggs, the best thing to cure a raging hangover on a Sunday morning.
That and a certain brand of spicy fried chicken once a year. Ah, how comforting it is to take hold of that warm cardboard box, already buckling from its moistening oil, open it and pull out an attractively misshapen piece of deep-fried animal matter, bite into the crispy, spicy exterior – heaven – then reach the sodden flesh inside and be cured of the urge for another 12 months.
When I lived at the coast, there was nothing more comforting than going for a barefoot walk on a deserted beach in winter, with the mist rolling in from the sea (as apparently it does in parts of Scotland too if Paul McCartney is to be believed) and the foam flecks flying and the waves numbing my toes, and afterwards stopping on frozen feet at the friendly neighbourhood grocery store for a bag of wood to build a fire and a slice of pizza to eat while my feet defrosted.
Being relative, the concept of comfort is affected by elements other than alimentary contentment. Busy feeders of families find convenience foods immensely comforting, given their time-saving properties. There is nothing wrong with that, or with slimy hagfish, or whatever it is that makes your world feel right. But I'd feel more comforted if art movements felt comfortable enough to ditch the word antidisestablishmentarian.