Ordained Minister, Child Psychoanalyst and Parent educator Sheila P. Johnson explores powerful connections between food, memory and comfort in the age of COVID-19
Everything changed when the state of New York became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. A single confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 1, 2020, soared to 406,305 official cases and 32,466 coronavirus deaths by the end of May. New York was on chronically stressed lockdown. There were long queues for groceries and necessities, along with empty shelves. Even now, with the infection rate at an all-time low, I live with the knowledge that our youngest daughter, a nurse, and funeral director is potentially exposed every time she goes to work. Even before she secured temporary hotel housing she self-isolated at home to keep us safe and was unable to share family meals.
Mom Mom’s Spaghetti Saves the Day
The pandemic was the perfect incubator for stress eating and my personal favorite (and kryptonite) my grandmother’s Soul Food Carbonara. This dish is so good and so effective that my friends recommend it in case of an emergency. Research tells us that consuming food high in sugar, salt, and fats, aka “comfort foods,” triggers the brain’s reward system and produces feelings of well-being. Just the thought of her food triggers hunger pangs and the anticipated mood elevation. Note: This is the same reward system associated with opioid addiction.
I don’t know about you, but I craved comfort food after a few weeks of self-quarantining, stress, boredom, wild imaginings, and a surplus of groceries. Potato chips, chocolate, ice cream; Chinese food, virtually anything fried…everything was permissible. Did you notice how good it felt just reading about those foods? You may even be salivating right about now. The very first meal I cooked for my family was a big ole pot of “Mom Mom’s Spaghetti,” a recipe passed down from my maternal grandmother. Each serving has a quarter pound of bacon and generous amounts of Velveeta Cheese™, peppers, onions, and tomatoes, (864 cal.; 121.08 g. carbs; 22.22 g. fat; 43.50 g. protein; 2,531.37 mg. sodium).
This recipe unites generations of women in my family, four of whom are now deceased, connecting me (the survivor) to the past, and my daughter and me to the present. It also helped ensure generations of chronic high blood pressure. The wonderful thing about my Mom Mom’s Spaghetti is that it never turns me away or disappoints me. The precise combination of ingredients takes me right back to her kitchen in that tiny steel mill town in Western Pennsylvania, (population 10,000). It was not so much about the taste and smell of the food, as the feelings of security and safety it represented. Mom Mom has been gone for decades and the making and eating of her spaghetti recipe is my way of honoring and remembering her.
Grape or Red?
Fortunately for mankind’s sake, human bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) so that we can recall and internalize positive food-related memories, even without actually eating. Specifically, comfort food comforts us even when it’s not being consumed because of the direct link between primary relationships, food and memory, and the development and transmission of powerful cultural symbols and traditions. Positive interactions with primary relationships can create a psychological space, which psychoanalysts refer to as “transitional space.” It’s the holding environment for the soul and foundation of all creativity. This is the realm of a baby’s binky and your favorite tee-shirt. It’s not too difficult to co/recreate that emotional space when you make time for bonding with family and friends.
Got an interesting food story? I discovered the gloriousness of rainbow chard…thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and a free market basket at GetFoodNYC, an emergency COVID-19 food distribution program. My family pronounced “chard” every which way and I, being a stickler for correct pronunciation, naturally corrected them. Results: It’s a running joke to correct me…now and probably forever. Even now I’m wondering, “What is wrong with these people?” as they chant, “Chard, Chard, Chard!” Am I supposed to chug the chard?
The other day, my daughter and I were sitting around the kitchen island watching the movie, House Party (1990), a family favorite. There was a scene where the mom came home and her little boy informs her that “there’s nothing to drink,” while holding an iconic Kool-Aid pitcher. Mom says, “Make it yourself,” and he replied, “Grape or red?” My daughter and I turned to each other and simultaneously shouted out “red!” laughing hysterically. We both knew that “red” is a culture-specific code for cherry-flavored Kool-Aid in the African American tradition.
I hope my stories demonstrate that there is enough comfort to be found in the common, mundane little things of life. I encourage you to continue to share good food memories because this will promote mental health and a sense of family belonging and continuity. May you find your comfort and be a comfort.