My sister S, who lives in Connecticut, sends me a text message: “Informal opinion survey: What would you choose as your comfort food? And why?” Hmmm. I scratch my chin. Is this a puzzle? A riddle? A booby-trap? Then a moment later, being a practising telepath, S sends me the answer to my questions: An article in The New York Times had made her curious.
In the article, six well-regarded chefs, each belonging to a different culinary region, write a short paragraph about their favourite “comfort food”. I do not recognise any of the items and don’t especially feel attracted to them. But that’s of little consequence. The dishes aren’t meant to represent the height of edible delight. Instead, they are what six very different and talented chefs think of when they recall what they love about food. Here’s what they chose: Pandan cake, mollete, plantain, katsu sandu, wild blueberries and za’atar manousheh. To find out more about these dishes, you’ll need to Google the article.
My sister and I, of course, begin immediately to discuss our own choices. “I bet you think you know what mine is,” I say, “but you’ll be wrong.” “It’s BREAD of course!” says S. “In fact you’ve always said that you’d be very happy in an old-style bread-and-water prison, because that’s exactly what you want!” “Yes,” I admit, “I used to say such things — and it’s still true, in the sense that I certainly still love to eat bread and would be perfectly happy if that’s all I got morning, noon and night. But that’s what I call SURVIVAL food. Quite distinct from COMFORT, you’ll agree!”
“All right, all right — point taken,” says S. “For comfort,” I continue, “my go-to dish is pasta. Specifically, spaghetti and meatballs, but, really, ANY pasta.” Then it’s her turn. I say, “I bet I know what your choice is too!” “No, you’ll be surprised,” she says. “It’s those tiny Danish cocktail sausages we used to get in those days, with a mound of mashed potatoes!” “Oooh!” I exclaim, remembering them from childhood meals. There was a time, between the ages of 11 and 13, when that was all I wanted. We lived in Thailand at the time and, whenever my parents went out in the evening, I had my way with dinner, “— for three whole years!” I say.
“What happened after three years?” asks S, puzzled. I give a little sigh. “Ah well! Don’t you remember? I went to boarding school.” And all my food preferences went through profound changes. We were very well-fed in school but leaving anything on the plate was frowned upon. I forgot my fussy habits and learnt to eat everything. I’m still like that. I don’t yearn for specific foods, I don’t have strong preferences and am easily pleased with a meal, especially if I like the presentation and the ambience.
“So! What’re you having for dinner tonight?” asks S. “Durham wheat spaghetti, with olive oil, steamed broccoli and sprinkled Parmesan!” I say. Yum.
Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column