Comfort foods: What’s your guilty pleasure?

Comfort food: sometimes we eat for emotional as much as physical nourishment. Photograph: iStock/Getty

My car smells of Haribo Supermix. This is because whenever I am driving somewhere for work I pull into a service station and snaffle down a bag . I do this like it’s a horse’s nosebag and I am not ashamed. Most of us have some comfort foods in our emotional arsenal, not food that make us feel physically better but food that psychologically soothes us.

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Prof Charles Spence is a University of Oxford gastrophysicist and sometime Heston Blumenthal collaborator who regularly helps to create meals with chefs at Kitchen Theory’s Chef’s Table in London. He has recently been reviewing the research on comfort food.

“Why do we really eat?” he says. “A lot of the time it’s not for nutrition or hunger; often it’s social or externally driven... So that idea of comfort food and emotional eating, sometimes we eat for emotional nourishment as much as physical nourishment.”

The whole idea of psychological reassurance coming from a food is based on nostalgia, our memories, the Marcel Proust moment: it takes you back to your grandmother’s

He was curious if he could find some similarities across different comfort foods, “but I couldn’t find any particular sensory properties that they have [in common] that distinguish comfort food from any other food we eat.”

He did see some patterns. Most studies found that men were more inclined towards savoury comfort foods, he says, while women went for “the movie stereotype of ice cream and chocolate”.

But, oddly enough, when I put a (not hugely scientific) query about comfort foods out on Twitter, Irish people seemed to fly in the face of this trend, with the male respondents favouring sweet things, and women preferring carb-heavy savoury foods usually doused in butter. I tell Spence this and he laughs. “I definitely think there is a cultural thing too. What’s comfort food in Asia is different from North America. ”

In general, what ultimately make something a comfort food for an individual are memory and nostalgia. We eat it when “we are threatened in some way”, and “the whole idea of psychological reassurance coming from a food is based on nostalgia, our memories, things tied to those times we were cared for or loved... The Marcel Proust moment: it takes you back to your grandmother’s all those decades ago.”

The notion of self-medication and the notion of food as a medicine, in a light form, that’s what comfort food is. That’s not always a bad thing

Spence is interested in this subject partially for personal reasons. “I’ve been looking a lot at end-of-life foods,” he says. “My mother was in care and had dementia, and she was drawn to ice cream. That was the only thing she would eat for the last six months, and she never liked it in her life. So it was very bizarre.

“I’ve been working with chefs trying to reformulate ice cream to say that if this is a thing people want, it isn’t intrinsically unhealthy; we can make it healthy by putting in the right kind of stuff. We did a dinner for the residents of Denville Hall, which is a care home for elderly actors, and we made all these ice creams that had a nostalgic value but were healthy.

“The notion of self-medication and the notion of food as a medicine, in a light form, that’s what comfort food is. That’s not always a bad thing.”

Gavan Reilly, Virgin Media News political correspondent

What is your comfort food?
Bourbon biscuits. But they have to be the oblong ones, with sugar crystals on them. None of your square “chocolate creams” guff.

How many do you have in one sitting?
Officially speaking, maybe two or three. The problem is that I can find myself having three or four quick-fire sittings if nobody is watching.

Where and when did you first discover them?
I can always remember there being “chocolate creams” in my gran and grandad’s house where I used to be minded after school, and as I’ve always been fond of chocolate they were usually my first choice from the biscuit tin. I can’t remember where the distinction between chocolate creams and Bourbon creams formed in my head, but I think once I realised that a Bourbon was more substantive and generally more satisfying to chew, the chocolate creams wouldn’t cut it any more.

Gavan Reilly
Gavan Reilly

What sort of mood are you in when you eat them?
It can be any sort of mood. The problem is that I can find myself eating them like crisps. If I’m sitting down to watch a game I might bring out a packet intending to have a couple, and then eat... well, more than a couple. Alternatively, at the end of a long or tiring day, they can become a little pick-me-up – a bit like how some people pour themselves a glass of wine, I’ll just have a little chocolatey nibble.

How does it make you feel?
It’s like a miniature version of getting into a warm bed with an electric blanket on.

Do you feel judged over your comfort food?
Not really – though, before now, the only person who knows about it is my wife, Ciara, who is partial to the occasional Tuc cracker. To be honest, if Bourbon creams are my biggest vice (other than very elaborate Rubik’s Cubes) it’s a cost-effective one, at just 24c a packet in Lidl.

What’s the opposite of your comfort food?
Parsnips. Parsnips are the devil. Also, to stay thematic, “chocolate creams” are a pale imitation, the food equivalent of diet water.

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Are you eating Bourbon biscuits now?
No, but I wish I was.

Liz Nugent, novelist

What is your go-to comfort food?
Birds Eye potato waffles. Smothered in butter.

Where and when did you first discovered this food?
I first discovered the joys of Birds Eye potato waffles (no other brand will do) when flat-sharing with a French girl in the early 1990s. Let’s just say she was not a gourmet. She lived on chips, Super Noodles, fish fingers, Heinz beans and waffles. I showed her an avocado and she didn’t know what it was. I had notions, even then.

Liz Nugent
Liz Nugent

What sort of mood are you in when you eat them?
Tired or lazy, or both. Like this morning, for example. I had a public event last night and am still recovering from jet lag after a trip to New Zealand and a busy day ahead. I popped two into the toaster at its highest setting (twice – very important) while the kettle boiled for my cup of tea. A generous slather of butter and, hey presto, breakfast of champions.

How does it make you feel?
It’s pretty filling. I can write for three hours on two waffles. Occasionally, I find myself wondering what journey a simple potato took to turn up on my plate looking like a child’s toy, and what was added or taken away, but I’m not dumb enough to read the ingredients on the side of the pack.

Do you feel judged over your comfort food?
I might be when this article comes out, but I once saw Tom Doorley in Eddie Rocket’s, and that made me feel so much better about myself. If this feature makes just one person feel better about their eating habits, then our job is done.

What’s the opposite of your comfort food?
Generally, my diet is pretty balanced, and if I’m not feeling tired or lazy I will make a smoothie for breakfast with raw ginger, pineapple, orange, melon and Velvet Cloud sheep’s milk yogurt. That’s pretty easy to make too – you just whizz it all in a blender with some ice cubes – but the downside is cleaning the blender afterwards and, of course, peeling the fruit first. I am trying to add three drops of CBD oil to my diet, because friends have told me of major health benefits. I haven’t seen any benefits yet, and it tastes foul, so I may give up on it. I’ll give it another week.

Do you have any other general observations about comfort food?
I can’t think of a vegetable that can’t be cheered up with a knob of butter.

Clare Monnelly, actor

What is your comfort food?
Plain pasta with butter and salt.

Why this food?
I love carbs. If I could I would happily survive on beige foods alone. Pasta with real butter and salt is carbs at their purest, and it brings me absolute joy.

Clare Monnelly
Clare Monnelly

Does it remind you of a specific time and place?
I was a pretty picky eater as a kid. I was never into sauces or anything fancy. So this was my go-to. I remember coming home from school and having it watching The Den on TV. So I’m sure there’s a nostalgia value attached to it too.

What type of mood are you in when you crave it?
I’ll usually resort to it if I’m feeling a bit low or vulnerable. I’ll curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch some classic TV (The Office or Extras or The Thick of It) and have a massive bowl of pasta. It also feels like a bit of a rebellion against the world – yes I will eat this massive bowl of nutritionally void food instead of going to the gym, and what of it?

Why is it comforting?
It is tasty and filling and reminds me of being a kid, long before I would ever have scolded myself for eating something so “bad” for me.

When did you first have it?
I’d say I was eating it as I was emerging from the womb. I have no specific memory of when the obsession began, but it reminds me most of my mam, who of course was the one who was forced to prepare it for me on a daily basis.

How do you feel after you’ve eaten it?
Happy. And full.

Do you feel judged because of your comfort food?
When I moved in with my best friend she was pretty horrified by the concept. But it didn’t take her long to come over to the dark side.

What’s the opposite of your comfort food?
Probably a big bowl of vegetables. Which I’m not entirely averse to... but pasta will always be my happy place.

Clare Monnelly is in Nothing But a Toerag by Aisling O’Mara, directed by Amilia Keating, at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, on Grafton Street in Dublin, until November 23rd

Stephen Kinsella, economist and columnist

What is your go to comfort food?
Tim Tams. Fabulous Aussie biscuits. I could eat two packets in five minutes. I’m developing a low-level addiction. I brought a stack back from Australia recently. I have already made a dent. In Australia, Tim Tams are ubiquitous in a way nothing we have here is, apart from maybe potatoes or washing-up liquid. They are in every house you go to and every office.

Stephen Kinsella. Photograph: Bryan Meade/thecurrency.news
Stephen Kinsella. Photograph: Bryan Meade/thecurrency.news

When might you particularly want a Tim Tam?
I find inexplicable bureaucracy, in particular, induces cravings.

What sort of mood are you in after eating them?
Tranquil. They remind me of a very happy time in my life... They remind me of Australia.

As these aren’t Irish biscuits, how do you up your supply?
I don’t! I bought a giant batch of them and brought them back. Now they are all used up. Answering this questionnaire has induced cravings.

Do you feel judged over your comfort food?
No one can biscuit-shame me.

What’s the opposite of your comfort food?
I don’t have one. I am the culinary equivalent of a bin and will eat anything, especially sweet things. I am putting my dentist’s kids through college.

Louise Bruton, writer and journalist

What is your go-to comfort food?
Ahem. Two Weetabix biscuits with a heavy sprinkling of Coco Pops on top, a generous splash of milk, and then put into the microwave for one minute. When it’s ready we continue with the generous sprinklings and splashes and totally douse it in sugar. I’m a monster. I know.

Louise Bruton. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Louise Bruton. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

You should be in jail. Why is that your comfort food?
It’s warm and it’s sugary and you can have it for breakfast or dinner or as a hangover remedy. It does things that a bag of Haribo can only dream of.

When did you first have it?
I invented this monstrosity when I was about four or five years old. I used to instruct my mum and my siblings to make it for me, and I thought I was some sort of chef by saying “pop out sugar”, like it was an actual technical term, when all it means is “take the bowl out of the microwave and lash the sugar on”.

What type of mood are you in when you crave it?
I’m either in a low mood and need to be lifted or it’s my birthday and I feel like I deserve a treat. I’ve also started making it with oat milk instead of dairy milk, because my body is my temple and lactose can’t call round here any more.

How do you feel after you’ve eaten it?
Warm. And sugary. The Weetabix element tricks you into thinking that you’ve done something good for your body when all you’ve done is rotted a few years off your teeth.

Do you feel judged because of your comfort food?
Yes. But all I’ll say is don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. The crispiness of the chocolatey rice puffs juxtaposed with the gooey mess of the ’bix is Michelin.

What’s the opposite of your comfort food?
Hospital food.