I believe comfort food is subjective, and what brings solace to me might leave others completely unmoved. Also, all food is comforting in some way, really. But I do love curling up with a significant quantity of the food which warms my soul – generally anything yielding and hot and salty, like very buttery mashed potatoes, or spaghetti with lots of butter and nutmeg, or cheese on toast, or really creamy risotto. Or this thing: pasta, covered in sauce made from minced beef and canned tomatoes, covered in white sauce made with milk and cream, covered in cheese. (PS: I deleted this way enormous preamble about anxiety and the difference between comfort food we seek in times of crisis compared to just eating it because we feel like it and wow are you lucky I edited it out, it because it went on for miles.)
Something I got to thinking about recently is comfort food for the mind: feel-better, everything’s-going-to-be-alright pop culture. Food can only do so much, and sometimes you want to take your nervous brain and transport it somewhere else for a while. If your brain is processing something soothing while your stomach is eating something particularly heartwarming? So much the better. In that way that similarities occasionally cluster in your life to make it feel like you’re in a TV show with an overarching theme in each week’s episode, I’d ended up explaining on several different occasions why I loved a particular thing so much: because when I watched/listened/read etc it, it felt like everything was going to be okay. Since that’s not a feeling any of us can take for granted, I decided to investigate it further. (Weirdly, I also had FOUR separate occasions last week of getting frustrated at not being able to find something because it was written on paper rather than being in my inbox. Bet Ray Bradbury’s out there somewhere smugly nodding.)
Here’s my (whim-based, non-exhaustive, non-alphabetical) list of comfort food pop culture.
– Pop Culture Happy Hour, the nicest, happiest, snappiest podcast I’ve ever, ever heard. And it’s about pop culture, which I evidently have a general thing for.
– The Hour
– Nashville (Connie Britton’s mere existence is weirdly comforting, I don’t know how she does it.)
– Parks and Recreation (I want to say “you don’t understand” but that’s unfair. It’s just that it’s possibly bordering on concerning how much this show means to me.)
– NewsRadio (Caveat: Actor Phil Hartman was murdered between the fourth and fifth season and I cannot physically bring myself to watch anything past the penultimate episode of season four. Just can’t do it. Luckily the previous episodes all stand up to being rewatched a million times.)
– Maeve Binchy’s book Circle of Friends. (I’ve never been moved by anything else written by The Binch, but I reread this book every summer and couldn’t be happier while it’s happening.)
– Marty Robbins’ record Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Mmmhmm. Also more or less anything by the Rat Pack. Frankly, if it’s from a time where singers were likely to have praised the rich smooth tar of their cigarette company sponsors for keeping their crooning voices shipshape (lookin’ at you, Nat King Cole), I’ll probably be hugging myself while listening to it.
– Wet Hot American Summer (Or as I call it, “Nothing bad can happen when Wet Hot American Summer is on.”)
– The Big Chill (obvious choices are sometimes obvious for a reason)
– Audra McDonald singing more or less anything.
– Nina Simone singing more or less anything except the sinister Everyone’s Gone To The Moon
– Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 adaptation (Although Colin Firth’s smoldering and Jennifer Ehle’s heavily loaded politeness are almost too hot)
– Much Ado About Nothing, the Kenneth Branagh adaptation (There was a point in my life where I was watching this…literally…daily. I may have also had a small notebook filled with my favourite quotes from it which I carried everywhere)
– Baby-sitters Club books (I regret nothing)
– Leonard Cohen, the youthful-voice years.
– Wikipedia. Okay. I mean, it can be a little bleak (especially if you’re aimlessly searching along the lines of “whatever happened to…”) but there’s not much I love more than reading about the minutia of various TV shows or one-hit wonders or people’s lives or finding out how many towns are called Taft, or just looking up things like “kissing”.
There’ll be more that I haven’t mentioned, there’ll indubitably be things that look really good on paper that I’ve completely forgotten, but if you’re feeling all tense and twisty and in need of something to take your mind off bad things and zoom it to a land of delightful, I recommend all and any of the above. The list may look long, but it’s carefully chosen – it’s not just a case of something being really, really good. I predictably exult The Wire, I do not find it comforting. I am obsessed with many musicals, but listening to, say, Wicked or Grey Gardens will usually leave me more emotionally drained than at ease with life. No, to fall within the soft, inflatable bouncy castle walls of comforting pop culture it has to really make my heart kind of clench and release with happiness at the very thought of consuming it, and give you that rain-on-the-roof, snuggled in a blanket feeling that everything’s okay, even if the material itself isn’t that uplifting (I see you, Leonard Cohen.) (Admittedly, wikipedia is more what I read when I can’t sleep rather than like, a joyous occasion, but I stand by my inclusion.)
On Monday night I made this layered up, just-bordering-on lasagne dish for dinner and Tim and I ate it while sitting on the couch watching The Hour. Comfort food plus comfort pop culture? I nearly dissolved from contentedness. Even if it’s only a relatively quick fix, it’s a delicious one on all levels while it lasts. I’m not saying this recipe is particularly impressive, or even original – in the same way that various brands will assure you that one of their product is sold every seven seconds worldwide, I’m pretty sure recipes resembling this one are made every single night somewhere. But still, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time.
To clarify some things about the recipe: Yeah, I like my white sauce that buttery, although I can’t even tell anymore what is a reasonable amount of butter to the average person, since I eat so much of it. I didn’t specify any particular herbs because something about this reminded me of when I was first learning to cook, and adding any dried herbs at all – including those generic Dried Mixed Herbs packets – felt really knowledgeable and sophisticated. Plus, after a certain point on your shelf, most dried herbs start to lose their flavour anyway, so marjoram is just as friendly as basil or oregano or whatever. Finally, I really like adding a little cream or milk to a tomato-beef pasta sauce. It just rounds it out and lusciouses it up stops it just being a recently-frozen lump of mince and an ancient can of tomatoes.
Demi-lasagne (Aw c’mon, let me have that cute name. I know it’s still fairly inaccurate. But I hate any recipe that sounds like “pasta bake” and listing the main components fancy cafe-style – Pasta, Mince, Cheese Sauce – won’t do this any favours. And it is kinda lasagna-y.)
A recipe by myself. Serves two with leftovers for at least one lucky person the next day. The recipe looks long and complicated but it’s just me being talky, promise.
250g short pasta of some kind. Penne would look better in photos, but spirals is what I had.
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
300g beef mince
1 tin of tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried herbs of some kind (I went for dried oregano, so old you had to actually plunge your nose inside the package to detect any scent!
2 tablespoons cream
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cream, extra
As much cheese as you can deal with grating in whatever state you’re in while making this
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta according to packet instructions – usually 10-12 minutes makes it edible. Tip the cooked, drained pasta into the base of an oven dish, you know the kind, like big enough that a cat would attempt to fall asleep in it but small enough to stack neatly in your cupboard. Just a typical oven dish.
While the pasta is boiling, heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the beef mince. Once it’s getting to the more-brown-than-pink stage, tip in the canned tomatoes (breaking them up with your wooden spoon if they’re the whole variety) and sprinkle over your herbs of choice. Allow it to bubble away merrily over a medium heat till the tomato liquid is reduced slightly, then tip in the cream, allow it to come to the boil again, and spatula the lot evenly over the pasta in the oven dish.
At this point, set your oven to 200 C. Finally, in the same pan (don’t bother washing it out, but at least make sure you gave it a decent spatula-ing) melt the butter, tip in the flour, and continue to stir constantly till it forms a thick, magically delicious paste. Once very thick, and a little darkened, slowly tip in half the milk, stirring continuously. Don’t worry about lumps – the milk will absorb into the flour and butter eventually. Slowly add the remaining milk, and then the cream, continuing to stir. Stir the lot for a bit longer over a low heat till thick and smooth, then pour this evenly over the tomato-beef mixture in the oven dish. Then, sprinkle grated cheese over evenly, and bake the lot for ten minutes. If you like, flick the oven over to grill for a few minutes to allow the cheese to get all bubbling and amazing.
It’s almost willfully unimpressive, but also tastes so good and needs nothing more. The joy of eating it is twofold – first of all the texture, in that you barely have to exert yourself, hardly need move your jaw, to eat this layering of the soft and the minced, and secondly in the unthreatening, familiar-to-me, sustaining and rich flavours of the beef and tomatoes with the melted cheese and bubbling sauce. Plus it’s all – well, some – of the fun of lasagne without most of the faffing around.
Last Wednesday night the Marriage Equality Bill passed its second reading. By a sound, impressive, prouder-than-I-thought-I’d-be majority. I had a good feeling about it but I also tend to quietly expect the worst as a kind of emotional safeguard. Perhaps related, I occasionally unhelpfully troll myself by reading the letters to the editor of local nationwide newspapers, and gee, will they ever give you a sad outlook on the world. But I won’t give any further time to such odium, because it did get voted to the next stage, and there were some incredible, hope-spurring speeches from all sides of the political spectrum.
Which means, amongst so many things, that Tim and I are one step closer to being able to marry! This isn’t the only reason this is incredibly important to us, but immediately after getting engaged we gave ourselves this goal – of not marrying unless Marriage Equality went through – and it’s pretty thrillsy to be a little nearer to it happening. I’m not quite sure when the next, possibly final reading is. But am cautiously allowing myself to continue to have good feelings about it.
Title via: I love those moments when you hear a song for the first time and it pushes aside everything else you’ve heard before then because you can’t believe music can sound like that. And I don’t think having that feeling when you’re relatively young makes it any less valid. Aaaand I still love the song One Armed Scissor by At the Drive-In as much as I did when I heard it thirteen years ago.
Metallica, Whisky In The Jar. St Patrick’s day did not pass us by unobserved this year.
A few of us went to see Rodriguez on Saturday night. I most definitely recommend Searching for Sugarman, the beautiful documentary about him (although, spoiler alert: reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.) Seeing him in person was astounding. Seventy years old, being helped up to the stage, and yet playing with all the vigor in the world and his voice sounding just as it does on his 1970 record. This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst, or: Establishment Blues sounded like it could’ve been written yesterday.
Next time: Another I Should Tell You interview. Whoop!