"In convalescence, eggs are valuable."
I read that on the foxed page of a book that smelled like rising damp. Mrs Beeton, of Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book (new and revised with 150 illustrations and sections on table napkins, carving and trussing) has quite a bit to say about how to feed an invalid.
"Sago, tapioca and bread pudding are generally acceptable, after a long course of beef tea, broth, arrowroot and jelly ..."
Mrs Beeton does not mention macaroni cheese, peanut butter or sauvignon blanc, but she does include a recipe for toast water: "Toast the bread very brown and hard, but do not burn it, or it will impart a disagreeable flavour to the water. Put it into a jug, pour over it cold water, let it soak for about one hour, then strain and use."
I can think of no circumstances where it would be appropriate to serve toast water but also last week I paid $175 for a dinner that included a "juice" made from roasted grains and burnt honey, so it is probably only a matter of time before I'm dunking Vogel's in a glass of Naturally Pure NZ.
Mrs Beeton says, "A sick person's diet is as important as his physic, in fact, in many cases it is his physic."
I think what she means is that if you have a cold, KFC potato and gravy is approximately $52 cheaper than a visit to your GP. Now is the winter of our (snotty) discontent. The only cure is comfort food.
You could thicken a stew with the secretions I've expelled from my body this week. I know Mrs Beeton would. Her chapter on invalid cookery contains a recipe for "peptonized gruel". Ingredients include half a pint of fresh milk and one dessert-spoonful of liquor pancreaticus. If swallowing your own phlegm makes you queasy, for the love of all you hold dear, don't google "liquor pancreaticus".
In Mrs Beeton's world, eggs are coddled, fish is grilled and chops are steamed. "Give such food as affords the most nourishment with the least amount of exertion, either to the teeth or the digestion," she writes.
Comfort food should make us comfortable, like chambray or knowing how to pronounce "gewurztraminer" in fancy company. Comfort food softens our edges. It stops our feelings from sticking out. We turn to it when we are sick, tired and lonely — but also, according to research, when we are the exact opposite. In one American study, 86 per cent of people said they ate comfort food when they were happy, but only 39 per cent consumed it when they were depressed. According to this survey, potato chips were the gastronomic duvet of choice — 24 per cent listed crisps as their favourite comfort food; soup scored lowest at just 4 per cent.
"People's tastes are not formed by accident," writes Brian Wansink, director of the Illinois University's Food and Brand Lab. Past associations with particular people, places and events shape our comfort food desires ("Grandma always made me toast water"). So do our own identity, complicated politics — sometimes, we are soothed by a dinner that defines us. Food reminds us who we have decided to be, and what we do (and don't) stand for. One man's steak and chips is another's declaration of macho masculinity. "Soy," notes Wansink, "Isn't."
In 2000, Wansink was part of a team that looked at comfort food preferences across age and gender. One theory: men are more likely to consider hot dinners as a comfort food because they are more used to meals being prepared for them, while women more often rate convenience snacks as their get-better go-to.
I tested the veracity of this hypothesis via a peer-reviewed email survey (aka my office).
Sample response: "I'm sorry, did you say comfort wine?"
Neck chops, corned beef and chicken congee all made the list but the clear winner of this unscientific poll was pasta. Homemade macaroni cheese was huge. Potato chips made two appearances. Once with a side of Netflix, and once with (I am not making this up) a tub of yoghurt.
"Disgusting," I said.
"A whole bag of Delisio sweet chilli-flavoured chips with a bowl of yoghurt and then you put all the crumbs in the yoghurt at the end and eat it with a spoon. My flatmate calls the bit at the end the 'cereal'," said the survey respondent.
"Take one slice of toasted Vogel's," I replied.
Selected highlights of an unscientific survey of food for the soul.
"Anything with peanut butter — on crackers with Marmite, on toast with Marmite or by the spoonful when no one's looking!"
"My ultimate comfort food (and hangover fave) is wonton noodle soup. I think there must be some psychological link with the chicken noodle soup my mum would make when I'd be sick as a kid."
"Soto ayam — Indonesian chicken soup, as first experienced in Timor. Would love this for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner."
"My husband's fave is shepherd's pie — probably like most Kiwi men. But he does have a weird fascination with mashed potato ..."
"Pan-fried spam on the whitest possible bread you can find. Fried corned beef with onions and spices on the whitest rice you can find. Peanut butter and plum jam on white bread. Best Foods mayonnaise on white bread. Okay, I have a starchy white addiction."
"Chicken-flavoured chips. While watching Netflix on my laptop. While lying down."
"Cheese toasties. Just had one."
"No contest — braised neck chops or oxtail with onion, drowning in gravy, and mashed potatoes."
"My go-to comfort food is macaroni and cheese, always. My mum used to make it for us as kids about once a week when she was in a hurry (well, a semi-hurry, she was a solo mum so we had a lot of nights of spaghetti on toast too) and it always reminds me of her."
"Packet tortellini with a spicy tomato pasta sauce, it's something my mum always made. If I'm feeling fancy I also fill it with vegetables and absolutely cover it in cheese."
"Definitely pizza! I usually have this when I'm really cold or I've had a big night out."
"Chicken congee with spring onion and ginger. The Asian version of chicken soup when you feel poorly. And a great hangover cure."
"I'm sorry, did you say comfort wine?"
"Self-saucing chocolate pudding and a roast chicken/pork with all the trimmings — in that order if the day has not been kind! Something about having dessert first feels so special."
"My go-to is my bisnonna's (great-grandmother) simple pasta al pomodoro (red-sauce pasta) with lots of parmesan. I've been making it since I was about 7."
"If I'm in the mood, I'll do a slow-cooker corned beef ... a cauliflower cheese and mushroom white sauce, lots of veges. Calories be damned."
Annabel Langbein's Speedy Mac Cheese
Hands down the easiest macaroni cheese you'll ever make — you cook the pasta (and a bit of sneaky cauliflower) in milk then just stir in the cheese, so there's no white sauce or whisking required.
Ready in 30 mins
4 cups (1 litre) milk
1 tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups dry macaroni
½ head cauliflower, cut into small florets
180g ham, diced (optional)
½ tsp ground nutmeg
4 handfuls baby spinach leaves or other greens
3 cups grated tasty cheese
½ cup breadcrumbs
Heat milk, salt and pepper in a large pot. When it just comes to a boil add macaroni and cauliflower. Bring back just to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently for 2 minutes less than the packet instructions for the pasta. Mix in ham, if using, nutmeg, spinach and 2 cups of the cheese. Tip into a baking dish and top with remaining cheese and breadcrumbs. Place under a preheated grill and cook until golden (about 5 minutes). Serve at once.
For more great Annabel Langbein recipes see annabel-langbein.com.