Seeking comfort in food
On the 15th of March 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand, the unthinkable happened: a gunman walked into two Mosques and murdered 50 peaceful worshippers and injured a further 50. The pain that one ‘individual’ inflicted across a nation and, more specifically and deeply, to the friends and families of those victims, is palpable. This blog is not the place for discussion of the events of 15 March but, as we reel from the horror of what has happened and feel helpless through our inability to ‘turn back time’ or relieve the suffering of so many, we turn to what we know in an attempt to find some level of solace. This blog is dedicated to a few stories of kindness (and food) in the hope that it may offer some support at a very dark time.
Food as a healer
Food has always been central to healing. There are numerous books on the topic, although these tend to focus on our bodies’ interaction between our food and our physical health. Hospital dietitians carefully format meals to facilitate body repair and restore levels of wellbeing (however, those meals do attract a fair share of criticism). Aside from providing the obvious nutritional requirements that we need to facilitate wellness, food also has the ability to bring people together and to provide comfort at times of distress. An article in The Guardian described the benefits of a ‘nice cup of tea’ and why it is often the first thing that is offered at times of distress. It turns out that the act of holding a hot drink makes us perceive strangers as being more welcoming and trustworthy (interestingly, holding a cold drink has the opposite effect).
What brings me comfort may bring you discomfort
According to Wikipedia, comfort food can be traced back to at least 1966 when a newspaper described it accordingly: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’ – food associated with the security of childhood.” But, of course one person’s comfort food is another person’s nightmare. While bacon butties are an English favourite, they would bring little comfort to the vegetarians amongst us, nor for that matter would bakso, the Indonesian meatball soup or dinuguan the pork offal stew of the Philippines. It makes sense that there is a cultural element to comfort (in fact, it is blatantly obvious that there should be) and this leads to how food can be used to bridge the cultural divide.
Bridging the cultural gap
Hapori is an initiative run in Wellington by the New Zealand Red Cross – it is a project “that connects established locals with some of our newer kiwis”. Over an evening meal that comprises dishes from their own culture, refugees mingle with ‘locals’ sharing stories about food, culture and their journey to New Zealand. A few days following the Christchurch shooting, the Red Cross took to Twitter to offer some suggestions for ‘comfort food’; in this case, it was two recipes from a former refugee from Syria (@NZRedCross). This is a brilliant example of using food as a vehicle for both comfort and for understanding.
Generosity and kindness
Comfort food is also about generosity and kindness. Reaching out through a shared need – we all need to eat – is an age-old way of saying that you care. And, it is a caring act. When grieving, it is common to experience decision fatigue – for those of us who have ‘been there’ it is that inability to decide and along with that the very act of having to decide is exhausting and debilitating. Having nourishment provided removes a lot of those decisions that, in turn, contributed to the stress of the moment.
In trying to make sense of the shootings, local residents inundated the only Christchurch halal supermarket asking for advice about appropriate food gifts. The outpouring of love, demonstrated through (among other things) food required the Christchurch Police to ask that people refrain from leaving food for survivors and families at the assistance Hub – they had ‘more than enough food’; and that was around 30 hours after the shooting. Food provides a universal language of caring and respect.
Food as a communication tool
Food also provides a vehicle for communication and relationships. Perhaps one of the most valuable community services (in a non acute setting) is the meals-on-wheels service that is also provided by the Red Cross. Along with the delivery of around 12,000 hot meals every week, the service provides social contact for elderly and disabled people and for those recovering from illnesses. In effect, the food is secondary to the connectivity it provides to those who are often isolated and lonely.
The benefit of food as a connector is not limited to those receiving social services. It is also a protective factor for adolescents. In a paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the authors described a strong inverse relationship between the frequency of shared family dinners and the prevalence of risk behaviors. Specifically, the more meals shared together the lower the risk over a number of risk behaviors. This relationship continued when variables such as family structure and gender were taken into account.
"...the people who give you their food give you their heart"
It is probably apt to finish with the notion that shared meal times in the home are protective – while they cannot make us immune to the craziness of the world, they do offer a respite and opportunity to connect. Food also provides us with a means to demonstrate concern and grief, it provides the opportunity to offer both nourishment for body and heart. Food is also the cultural bridge that brings to the table the history, the language, and the stories of far-away places.
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him – the people who give you their food give you their heart” Cesar Chavez