Different Food, Same Blanket

The true meaning of comfort food. Words by Andrea Oskis; Illustration by Ben Jay Crossman

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I know you’ve all heard of comfort food, but can a road comfort you too? I don’t see why not. My childhood, if not my entire life, seems to have been defined by two roads: one, the North and South Circular, is infinite; the second, Green Lanes, isn’t, but only on the technicality that it ends in Winchmore Hill. I always feel comforted when I’m on it, whether looking for something to eat on foot or sleeping on an N29. Not only have I lived up and down it for thirty years, traversing its length to and from school on the 629 every morning, it was also the subject of the first piece of food writing I ever got published. How could it not have been?

For those who don’t know it, Green Lanes is London’s equivalent of those vast Angeleno boulevards that course through the city like a river, meandering past different neighbourhoods, sometimes changing names and always changing character. In Newington Green it is a tight, unremarkable high street save for the few lahmacun, baklava and grill houses, by Haringey it has become its own Turkish and Kurdish city. Further north, where today’s story takes place, distances get larger, restaurants get sparser, Turkish fades to Greek, the scent of lamb softens to pork, and the restaurants become homelier, taking on the air of faux-rusticity. And at the end of it all, like the last house before Enfield, is Babinondas.

Babinondas is your starting point into today’s newsletter by Andrea Oskis on the thorny subject of comfort food. I have eaten there only once, as a teenager, and remember it mostly for its decor, which is an incongruous recreation of Cyprus on the banks of the New River. But it proves that from beginning to end, Green Lanes is about comfort, about providing a sense of home ─ whether in Babinondas’s vineyards, in the lamb soup as Hala eaten solo late at night with a bowl of pickles, or at the tavernas in Palmers Green where cards and backgammon accompany live musicians doing their best Stelios Kazantzidis impression. The only constant is that comfort always comes in the most unlikely of places, even if it’s just a massive TFC on a busy A-Road.

Different Food, Same Blanket, by Andrea Oskis

Wars change both diets and destinies. My father migrated to London in 1974, soon after the end of the Cyprus War, which saw the division of the island into two political and ethnic territories – the Greek (Republic of Cyprus) and the Turkish (Northern Republic of Cyprus) – which are still present today. He came with his best friend Vassilis; the two grew up together in the town of Limassol, Cyprus. They’d been together in both the playground and the battleground, and in London they found their economic feet working in restaurants. In the early days Vassilis stayed true to ethnic form and worked in a kebab house on Charlotte Street, while my dad briefly opted for the other rising star of London’s grill scene, Wimpy. 

Their paths diverged, but their bond has been sustained by the way they hold each other in their minds. In body: well, together they look like a physically reversed – but very reverential – Greek Cypriot version of Del Boy and Rodney. Vassilis now runs the Greek Cypriot restaurant Babinondas, which sits on the quieter upper part of Green Lanes. You will eat well if you travel that long lane from its source in Newington Green all the way up to suburban Enfield. For Cypriot restaurants in particular ─ both Greek and Turkish ─ it’s the Mother Road, the Route 66. There is an echo of Steinbeck in how most of the restaurateurs have been driven to that road through escape and loss. 

The village feeling is far from lost at Babinondas. Bright bougainvillea almost barricades the entrance. The short walk through the pergola-porch dining space to the front door will leave you heady from the musky scents of sweet jasmine and cigarette smoke. Look up and you’ll see the tendrils of vines strongly entwined and gently trailing in the roof trellises, begging to be stolen for making homemade dolmades. I love that outside space; it is a charming combination of homely, homeland and Homebase. Inside, you might expect simple wooden furniture to mirror the stripped-back informality associated with typical Greek-Cypriot tavernas. Not at Babinondas. The high-back faux leather dining chairs and crisply ironed white tablecloths give a certain formality, and rightly so: Cypriot eating is serious business. 

At Babinondas my father mostly ignores the menu. The food he enjoys most is the unfussy fare he used to tuck into after school, when my grandmother would have lunch warm and waiting for him. Things like steamed marrow dressed generously with olive oil and gently with lemon; scrambled eggs with burnt courgettes; houmous soup blanketed with fresh parsley; black-eyed beans boiled to dusty creaminess and served with wild greens. If ‘brown food’ has its new champions, for Cypriots it is ‘bottle-green cuisine’ that needs a fan club. These traditional dishes feature fresh herbs that purposefully have the lively spring greenness cooked out of them, as well as leafy chard and nettles that are boiled for as long as the pulses that go with them. The food is cosy and packed with flavour, but with the dowdy hue of an old school uniform. Restaurants tend not to serve them because, for a certain generation, it is not just the food of home, but also food that reminds them of hard times. Greek restaurants, as we all know, are for good times, celebrating and smashing plates.  

For my dad, however, this is the food his mother used to make, now cooked by his closest friend and a man who once saved his life. The key ingredient in all of these different dishes is not something tangible; it is the association with people he trusts, who have cared for him and who have been there for him. It is about my father’s love for and attachment to these individuals. It is, in other words, comfort food with a double helping of comfort.

Comfort food is a messy topic. In my research as a psychologist ‘comfort eating’, ‘emotional eating’ and even ‘stress eating’ all make an appearance. The whole field has the feel of a really badly written recipe: the terms are used generally and interchangeably, and the methodologies used by the studies vary widely. It’s physiology, rather than psychology, that sheds some light on why eating certain food feels good – this is the research on ‘stress eating’. 

Along the way, evolution has beautifully crafted our physiology so that our bodies’ systems for stress, appetite and reward all interact. Eating calorific food is designed to feel good, and this cortisol-counteracting and dopamine-driven positive feeling is known as reward-based stress eating. But this does not mean that everyone picks comfort foods that are fatty, stodgy or sugary, or explain why we all eat such different comfort foods.  

To hijack that old Brillat-Savarin quote: ‘Tell me what you comfort eat and I’ll tell you who you love.’ It is our relationships and attachments that most influence whether a food is identified as a comfort food. My colleague Shira Gabriel at the University at Buffalo, New York, was, a decade ago, the first to empirically put ‘comfort food’ on the map. In the first of her experiments, all participants ate the same chicken noodle soup; however, those who had perceived it to be a comfort food experienced more relationship-related thoughts and feelings afterwards. So chicken soup really is good for the soul – but only if you already name it a comfort food. 

The research also showed that we don’t even need to eat the named comfort food; merely writing about it is enough to bring about the comforting effects. In one experiment, the participant’s sense of belonging was ‘threatened’ when they were asked to think of a time when they’d had a fight with someone close, and to relive that time in their mind. They had to write about the experience, describing in as much detail as possible what had happened and how they felt. They were then either given a chance to write about a comfort food experience, or a time when they had tried a new food. Participants’ food-experience essays were diverse; the comfort foods talked about ranged from soup to ice cream to kimchi. When the writing was analysed, the researchers accounted for variables such as type of food (for example, a meal or a snack); whether the food was salty, sweet or healthy; and the usual temperature of serving. 

None of these things affected the data. Results showed that writing about a personal comfort food, but not a new food, attenuated feelings of loneliness for those who had positive views of relationships, who were securely attached. During Gabriel’s research, participants were also given the chance to eat a comfort food after the initial threat to their belongingness. Those with secure feelings about relationships evaluated the food more positively – they found it much more delicious and enjoyable. The attachment link is specific, clear and important; comfort food is most comforting for those individuals who understand its social value. 

The food writer MFK Fisher wrote seventy years ago that ‘It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.’ I think of this when I recall the food at Just Around the Corner, a little French bistro you may well have walked past if you happened to be on the Finchley Road in the late 1980s. It was unassuming and quaint; slightly more Parisian-cute than chic. This is where Vassilis cooked before he opened Babinondas; not taverna-style grills or Cypriot home cooking but French cuisine mainly cooked by chefs captivated by Le Cordon Bleu. We didn’t dine there because my father had a hankering for this type of food; we were there because his best friend was there. After all, no man is an île flottante. 

Vassilis’s presence gave my dad a sense of being anchored. It is exactly that feeling which gives us the confidence and encouragement to explore (literally) different territory. Psychologists have spent a lot of time observing children in what’s known as the ‘Strange Situation’ to see if they use their parent as a ‘home’, a secure base from which to explore the world. This includes gastronomic exploration too. A study published this year found that if children have the sense of a loved one as a secure base they are less likely to be picky eaters, even from as young as eighteen months old. Attachment to our loved ones is important for determining the comfort food we return to, but attachment is just as important if we want to get out of our comfort (food) zone. With Vassilis at that little French restaurant, my father ventured down the culinary road less travelled. He ordered things like the smoked haddock brandade – even if he did insist on pitta, instead of baguette, to taramasalata-ise it. 

The past year, however, hasn’t been the year for exploring, trying new things and leaving our bases – culinary or otherwise. If you research attachment, by definition, you also research loss. Some of the most seminal social-psychological research on life events shows that anxiety is related to the threat of future loss. We saw this early on in the pandemic, when we stockpiled certain foods in an anxious attempt to build a secure base: we carbed up to avoid breaking down. A recent study by the University of Padova in Italy found an increase in consumption of foods high in fat and sugar during the first month of lockdown, particularly ice cream, chocolate and salty snacks, which the majority of participants attributed to feeling stressed and anxious. But when it comes to feeling depressed, research shows the reverse story: it is about past loss. As the year went on, cooking all of our different comfort food dishes became a way of warding off the ongoing loss of connection, and the depressive feelings that threatened to settle with it. Like the participants in Gabriel’s experiment, comfort eating, as well as comfort cooking, cheered us up after the threat to our sense of belonging. But it did more than that; it also gave us back our vitality and our connection to each other through the memories it evoked.

I recently collaborated with Gabriel to bring together our different areas of research and to ask some more attachment-related questions about comfort food. In our survey we asked people about social connectedness, well-being and attachment to other people. There were also questions about what we call the ‘social fuel tank’, because we wanted to know whether non-traditional (i.e. not outwardly social) types of ‘fuel’ – such as eating comfort food, watching television, playing online games or reading books – fulfil the need for social connection and belongingness just as well as the traditional fuel provided by family, friends and romance. 

What emerged as most important overall is not how you’re filling the social fuel tank, but that your social fuel tank is getting filled. Non-traditional behaviours can enhance happiness and belonging and lessen loneliness, just as people do. In fact, for those who have felt really let down by others or find it hard to trust, we found it was detrimental to their well-being if they didn’t have any non-traditional fuel in the tank. Even for individuals who do feel secure in their relationships with other people, non-traditional behaviours are the icing on the cake, and a boost to their happiness: both types of fuel are meaningful in life.

I’m reminded of Nigella Lawson’s description of her former loneliness being like a fridge: the lights only coming on when the door is opened; when one has company. Our study has shown that the light can be on when there’s no one else at home – and that comfort food is a real way of achieving that ‘lit up’ feeling of connection which all humans need. Some of my other research found that we can be just as attached to places in the virtual world as the real world; we can have a ‘home’ in an online game that gives us an equal sense of belonging, and the presence of food in a game provides a more visceral experience. It is non-traditional fare, but it feeds. . 

The takeaway message of all of my research? Fill your social fuel tank to your heart’s content, in whatever ways work for you. It is the comfort of relationships and attachments that make for true comfort food, whatever that food may be, and research suggests that it plays a key part in filling our tank. I know my father’s social fuel tank is filled with our family, Vassilis, Only Fools and Horses reruns and a menu of comfort foods, all of which are uniquely his. True comfort food is food that wraps us in a security blanket, sometimes literally; whether it’s a sleeting of parmesan so heavy that it blankets a steaming bowl of table-imminent spaghetti, or a bed of thickly sliced onions that helps a lamb shoulder fall into a sweet slumber in its journey to becoming kleftiko. But no matter how different the comfort food, it satisfies the same appetite for connection, belongingness, security, and love that is deep inside all of us. I can almost hear MFK Fisher in the background, saying ‘I told you so’.

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Andrea Oskis is a psychologist and psychotherapist. The focus of her work, whether research or therapy, is attachment; to each other and food. You can find her on Twitter @AndreaOskis. Her web home and blog are at www.cupboard-love.co.uk

The illustration is by the artist Ben Jay Crossman. You can find him on Instagram at @benjaycrossman 

Additional Reading

Huevos During Wartime: M.F.K. Fisher's Egg Recipes Are My COVID-19 Comfort Food, by Jason Diamond

How To Cook A Wolf, by M.F.K. Fisher

Why Comfort Food Comforts, by Cari Romm

Jenny Linford’s 7 Comfort Foods Thread