Food is not just a necessity – it is a comfort factor as well. It is a touch point that brings back memories and makes us feel better when we are feeling low. It ushers in celebrations and makes us remember various events. It makes us dress up and go out, or dress in our oldest PJs and stay in. Such is the power of food.
Recently, while shopping for my daughter’s birthday party, I found myself walking down an aisle filled with bubblegum colored packets promising a sugar high and salt induced deliciousness. As I took in the profusion of cheese, salt and sugar, I found myself wondering about the comfort that we find in food. I reached out for the latest offering on the shelf – strawberry popcorn and served it at her party. The result? Hardly any takers. The kids were a little confused. Were they being served popcorn or candy? Was candy supposed to taste like that? Because popcorn definitely was not meant to be sweet! So the pink popcorn only turned out to be a good looking addition to the princess themed party, I finally decided. We are busy projecting our emotions, our sense of personal branding and our expectations on to food – and the aisles seem to have lost the plot!
After the party, my daughter enjoyed a hearty meal of my home cooked lasagna before she gave me a tight hug and said, “you are the best mother in the whole wide world!”
Now, if that’s not comfort – I don’t know what is!
So much of who we are has to do with what we eat – and how we eat. Growing up, I was taught to use a spoon and fork. We spoke in English at home. We listened to Pay Boone, New Kids on the Block and we watched Sound of Music and Home Alone. We were an impressive line up of four children and we belonged to Indian immigrant parents who had returned to India so that we would grow up in India.
Now, three of us are settled in the US.
Like many Indian parents, mine too insisted on preparing us for “anything and everything” in life, as they liked to say it. That included the opportunity to run shoulders with anyone in any part of the world. While we were experts at handling the cutlery laid out with every meal, we struggled a little when we had to use our fingers to eat. Certain family occasions demanded the use of fingers while we sat on the floor, on a mat and hovered our mouths just so to catch an incoming morsel, precariously contained on two or three fingers fashioned like a spoon. The exercise seemed chaotic and required much focus.
A grandparent once explained how this confluence of thumb to fingertips was also a Yogic posture that supplied the necessary activation of proper metabolism. It may have seemed messy, but the practice came backed by science. It was part of a lifestyle that helped the body function as it should.
For me it was more than just that. Doing it made me feel like a part of something – a culture, a family, my cousins. I felt accepted. I felt like we shared a private joke, or became a circle of sorts when we indulged like that. Even if we had gathered for a typical weekend lunch, it became a festive event. Many a times, an aunt or a grandmom would step in to feed us – with their fingers – and wrap up the festive meal. We began to look forward to those gatherings and some of our core memories were, unbeknownst to us, thus formed.
I miss that.
I am not sure if what I miss more – Indian food, or that gathering.
Eating and food make us who we are. Comfort food is not just a menu of consumables. It is the experience that it beckons.
While her joy lies in something fancy, mine lies in feeding her sometimes – just like my aunt or grandmom did. Just like my own mom did. With my fingers, with love, making little balls out of the rice moistened and flavored by Dal (lentil curry), naming them and making a story to keep her occupied. I conjure up scenarios carrying her favorite cartoon characters, even as I throw in some mythological characters.
She might not remember the party food later, but she will remember the comfort of eating well, of eating as a family. She will remember certain foods because of the comfort. And she will remember comfort when she finds that food.