From sourdough loaves to steaming banana breads, the culinary trends of lockdown have been heavily documented. Among them have been coffee, and lots of it, big breakfasts, and family dinners around the table.
For those of us who have worked from home, our lives became a little less 2020 and a little more 1970. Lunch on the go and restaurant fare gave way to homemade food. Data from researchers IRI is illuminating: sales of ready meals, often grabbed on the commute home, took a dive, while those of baking products skyrocketed, as did ice cream. Fruit and vegetables rose, but far more modestly. Sausages, eggs and bacon, long in decline according to the Family Food Survey, are back on the menu because we can dedicate more time to breakfast. Sales of cheese, butter and condensed milk all rose, too.
What we’ve most yearned for as an antidote to the distressing 24-hour rolling news (anecdotes and surveys suggest) is curry, ice cream, instant noodles, jelly, bread, soup, a roast dinner, or anything that simply makes us feel good.
There’s no single definition of comfort food. It is often, but not always, high in carbs, salt or sugar; often, but not always, tinged with nostalgia or sentimentality. As experimental psychologist Charles Spence lays out in his 2017 article Comfort Food: A review, these foods “offer some sort of psychological, specifically emotional, comfort,” even if there is limited scientific proof they do.
Many chefs who reverted to take away while their restaurants were closed to diners found fish pies or lasagna sold best. In London, James Cochran of 12:51 switched from fine dining to fried chicken, still on the menu despite reopening. His version is inspired by childhood trips from Whitstable to Brixton with his St-Vincent-born mother to pick up Caribbean products. “Still to this day it’s nostalgia,” he says, “it’s very comforting.”
Cochran’s recipe features in a new cookbook, Community Comfort, showcasing the comfort foods of over 100 people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Its curator, Riaz Phillips, explains that comfort food allows us to “find the emotion you’re looking for, the healing, the catharsis in cooking. If you’re looking for nostalgia, you can find that.”
My own lockdown cooking has served up nostalgia in the form of shepherd’s pies and toad in the hole, which I’d rarely eaten since childhood, and heritage, from my mother’s side, in chicken soup with matzo balls and Brazilian feijoada. There have been lots of stews and far more sausages than usual. Far more desserts, too.
We turn to comforting dishes in times of need: Londoner Jamila Thompson-Dixon tells me she has made pies, lasagna, and cakes but far fewer salads. She and her husband lost older relatives to Covid-19 and sought solace in food. “We both subconsciously turned to the foods that they had brought into our lives and that made us feel connected to them,” says Thompson-Dixon. That meant Jamaican curried mutton for Thompson-Dixon, cottage pies for her husband. With their families unable to provide support due to the lockdown restrictions, food “helped to fill a gap”.
For Yasmin Jaunbocus, a PR consultant based in London, lockdown comfort came in the form of childhood treats and snacks, such as banana with Bird’s custard and instant noodles. Dahl, made for her by her Mauritian parents when she was ill as a child, is something she also turned to, as it evokes a sense “being looked after. It’s what I cook when I’m sad.”
In Northumberland, Ruth Oldfield has juggled running her coffee business, Coffee and Kin, with homeschooling 11-year-old twins and preparing meals. Pre-lockdown, she says, “we were always on the run, the twins doing sporting activities,” says Oldfield. “So we’d grab a ready meal from M&S, something from McDonald’s, or make something really easy at home.”
So my go to comfort food (even more so in lockdown) is macaroni cheese. Do you have the ultimate macaroni cheese receipe? pic.twitter.com/UUOyILjTl5
— Peter of Leeds (@PeopleofLeeds) July 6, 2020
Sunday roasts for the Oldfields were a rare treat, saved for visits to grandparents. Now, they take place each week, and the family sit down to eat together every evening to classics like bangers and mash, toad in the hole or cauliflower cheese. Breakfast, often involving bacon and eggs, is eaten taken together rather than everyone rushing around.
Why these dishes? “I guess it reminds me of my childhood,” says Oldfield. “It’s also nice to keep traditions alive, and it’s quite balanced, with meat and vegetables. It’s tasty and healthy.” The meals have “brought a tighter family unit,” and, when they visited McDonald’s after reopening, the kids didn’t really like it, she says. Perhaps new habits will stick.
In Kent, food writer MiMi Aye has also used family meals as a chance to enjoy childhood classics. With her two young children at home, Aye decided to provide continuity by preparing ‘school dinners’. “I’ve changed our lunchtime menu to stuff they would recognise, but with nostalgia sprinkled on top because their actual school dinners are healthier as well as more modern than mine were.” says Aye.
“I give them fish fingers and baked beans and then, say, pink custard/blancmange or apple crumble for pudding. And it cheers me up too because it’s been a long time since I’ve eaten like that myself and it’s indulgent and reminds me of when I was less world-weary.” With the children unable to see friends or hug grandparents, a sense of normality – through food – has been comforting.
Psychologist Charles Spence isn’t surprised the nation’s eating habits have shifted, though points out that not every spike in sales should be attributed to comfort or nostalgia. He did foresee a shift from more experimental cooking to meals that “provide more emotional reassurance (comfort foods) and also nostalgia foods (that may help to remind us of better, more reassuring former times).” He thinks an increase in people eating alone during lockdown could partially explain the newfound hunger for comfort food.
As commuters slowly fill trains and buses once more, dormant microwaves will no doubt ping again. Pubs and restaurants, too, will draw us away from our kitchen table, yet chefs may wish to note what guests want to see more of on menus. According to a survey by Tastecard, the top three coveted dishes are toad in the hole, stew and dumplings and shepherd’s pie. What can be more comforting than that?