Comfort Food, or, How to Collapse
A very short essay, a diary entry, recipes and notes on eating
Hello! My name is Rebecca May Johnson, I am a writer and cook and this is my new Substack. Each week I will send out a short piece of writing, recipes and notes on what I’ve been eating at home and elsewhere.
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Comfort Food, or, How to Collapse
Eating comfort food facilitates my collapse – into the sofa, into bed, or to slump in my chair. It allows me to relinquish the need to be poised, upright, and on guard. Cheese melts into baked beans; mayonnaise and chilli sauce blur together on my plate as I drag oven chips through them; steam rises from a bowl and clouds my vision. The form of the food shows me how to let go of sharp distinctions and enjoy my own temporary disintegration. There is an absence of disciplining etiquette – no element of performance – only the barest movements required for eating.
I recently watched a film that made me think about comfort and collapse. After I said I wanted to see something about ice cream in Glasgow my friend Laura suggested ‘Comfort and Joy’ directed by Bill Forsyth. It was made in 1984 during the ‘Ice Cream Wars’ in which rival gangs fought over the routes on which they sold drugs from ice cream vans, resulting in several deaths and a long court case. The film, in contrast, is about a war over who can sell ice cream where (without murders or drugs). Slick Glasgow radio DJ Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird accidentally becomes involved in an intra-family conflict in the Italian diaspora after chasing an ice cream van manned by a hot woman and buying a 99 flake. Two masked men with baseball bats smash the windows of the ice cream van (but harm no one). As they are running away, one of the men recognises Bird and ask him to dedicate a song to his mother on his show, ‘Mantovani or Dean Martin’, ‘Memories are made of this?’, ‘Aye lovely’.
The film is gleefully disinterested in condemning vandalism and shoplifting. Shoplifting from a big department store is the charming habit of Bird’s girlfriend and the vandalism of Bird’s beloved red BMW with pink ice cream marks the start of him loosening up. At the beginning of the film, he repeatedly lectures his girlfriend about how to treat the velour on his car seats – then she leaves him. His character development is indicated by how relaxed he is about his car being vandalised. By the end, the car is very shabby – and he has given up maintaining it. Bird cannot take comfort from the softness of velour until he lets go of its pristine appearance, until he lets go of appearing pristine himself.
Bird’s usually well-oiled radio show becomes mad as he passes on coded messages to those involved in the ice cream wars. Finally, Bird resolves the conflict with a recipe. After hearing about ice cream fritters on the radio station’s cooking slot, he visits a Chinese supermarket for ingredients, then performs a demonstration to the warring families. The fritters bring together the chip shop and ice cream van owning factions, who we see synthesised into the new product that they plan to make together. It is unclear if the fritter takes off or whether Bird gets his cut – the film is not interested in that – but we see him eat a fritter and share it round: the crisp, hot shell collapses into sweet melting cream.
Comfort food is not only comforting, but it can be a model for comforting yourself, too. It teaches you to let go and collapse into yourself; how to give way to softness.
Iron, Roast, Chop
I went to Argos to buy an iron and an ironing board to iron a shirt for a funeral. As I was typing ‘ironing board’ into the computer, I half overheard a conversation between a man picking up an order and a woman working behind the collection counter. The woman was asking him about his Sunday (it was Monday). She seemed familiar with his family. ‘Did you have a roast?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What kind?’ ‘X meat’ ‘Ooh, lovely’, she said. ‘Did you go out as well?’ ‘No, watched X on TV at home on the sofa.’ ‘Very cosy, yes, it’s good to put your feet up at the weekend.’ Then something like, ‘You’re spoilt at home, aren’t you…’ (and a little more elaboration). Then I heard a sentence of true mystery, very clearly. ‘I was thinking of you when I ate my pork chop.’ This more or less ended the conversation, and he left. What was the meaning of the pork chop? Was it better or worse than the roast? I find a pork chop quite exciting – though it is admittedly not the collective event of a roast. Is it meagre? The woman had painted a rich portrait of the man’s Sunday to him, how much he had relaxed, how luxuriant his meal. It was as if she took comfort from it herself as she spoke – although the pork chop comment made me wonder if her feelings were more complex. She ate a pork chop and said a lot; he had eaten a roast and said very little. She filled in the difference with words. I was thinking of you as I ate my pork chop. This struck me as erotic, too. As the scene unfolded, I was looking closely at the Argos shopping screen. None of the less expensive ironing boards were in stock, so I chose a very large board that was still quite cheap. Later that day I would realise the problems its size would cause for ironing shirt sleeves. Interpreting the qualities advertised for each iron, the rationale of their pricing, and guessing the reputation of iron brands was engrossing. I did not catch sight of the roast-eating man or the pork chop-eating woman. He was barely there, but she impressed upon me the strength of her yearning.
Mince Pie with Swede and Carrot Mash
Sam said this was the most delicious pie he had ever had, especially the mince.
Ingredients (for four):
500g beef mince
120ml red wine
400ml water (or chicken/veg stock – I used water)
30ml Worcester sauce
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cut in half then finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and cut into 1/2 cm dice
½ leek, cleaned and cut into 2mm slices
½ tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons, plain flour
How to make:
Cook onion, carrot, leek and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until soft but not browned. Then add the mince and break up with a spoon, turning in the pan. When it’s browned all over, add Worcester sauce, tomato paste, vinegar, wine, and water. Give the pan a shake and then stir in the flour. Simmer on a low heat so it is just bubbling very gently for 1hr 40 minutes. Stir every now and then to make sure it doesn’t catch on the bottom. If it gets too dry, add a little water. When it’s done, it should still be a little saucy, but not watery; the carrots should be tender but not mushy. Season well with salt and black pepper: keep adding salt and stirring until you are happy with the flavour. Allow to cool.
The pastry is very quick to make. You can make it while the mince is cooling, just before you assemble the pie.
225g of self-raising flour or plain flour with 2 teaspoons of baking powder
110g shredded suet (I used beef, you can also get vegetarian suet)
salt and pepper
How to make:
Sift the flour (or flour and baking powder) into a bowl then add the suet. Season with salt and a grind of black pepper. Mix it lightly. Add in a little cold water (I add an ice cube to water from the tap in a jug to chill it down) and stir with a knife. Keep adding sprinkles of water and stirring until it comes together. Don’t add too much water or it will be very sticky. Bring it together into a ball and cover the bowl with cling film. Leave in the fridge for 5 minutes before using.
Assemble the pie
Pre-heat the oven to 220C (200C fan). When ready to make, find a pie dish or dishes that fits the mince so that it comes just a centimetre below the top. I made two pies using two enamel Falconware pie dishes, one slightly larger than the other. Brush the edges of the pie dish with egg or milk to stick them down. Roll out the pastry to ¾ cm thick. Brush the top with milk or egg and bake for 30-35 minutes or until the pastry is golden and crisp.
Swede and Carrot Mash
I had not cooked this before, and last ate it as a child when it was cooked by my dad’s mother, probably to have with roast chicken. It was so delicious, I loved it.
Ingredients (for two):
1 swede, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
3-4 medium size carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
butter, roughly 30g
salt and pepper
How to make:
Peel and cube swede and carrots into 1inch pieces. Add to boiling water with half a teaspoon of salt and cook for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Add c.30g butter. Crush with a fork or masher to a rough mash with a little texture remaining. Season to taste with salt and pepper and a grating of nutmeg.
I made two pies, one slightly smaller. A day later, we ate the smaller one with chips from the chip shop in my town. How to make: pre-heat the oven and put in the pie to heat through. Go to the chip shop and buy a large portion of chips to share and two cokes so you make it to the card payment minimum. Split the chips and the pie and have some ketchup, if you like.
Pastel de nata, coffee, orange juice and two fried savouries at a Portuguese cafe in a nearby town. We visited the town to go to the Turkish supermarket where we bought quinces, artichokes, green grilling peppers, blood oranges, freshly made sesame bread from the in-store bakery, halloumi and tahini. We also visited an Asian supermarket and bought instant noodles in many flavours, kimchi, black sesame filled mochi, a giant jar of Laoganma chilli oil, kombu seaweed and a foot long daikon radish.
A lunch of scrambled egg with a little sour cream mixed in on brown toast, and rocket salad dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper.
A glass of £10 champagne leftover from New Year’s that was very nice and prawn puff crisps to celebrate some good news.
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