If I was pushed to state my position on food, this would be it: food is good. Which of course is a reductive minefield. I mean: good food is good. And what is good food? Well, all that could be teased out over the course of a month, with letters pouring in from Outraged of Beach Haven, but now that I am asked to write about food that makes me happy, I am provoked to scrutinise my own food subsets.
Many foods satisfy me in many ways: I am pleased to know I have fulfilled my nutritional needs/I have loved every juicy, tasty mouthful/I’ve had a scintillating chilli high/ comfort has been provided by the spoonful... that barely glances at the ways in which food satisfies me. Let’s just say food does this in hundreds of ways, and hope that, in saying that, I’m not underestimating things.
Funnily enough, happiness foods aren’t necessarily in the same subset as favourite foods. Favourites are the central overlapping bit of the Venn diagram. I think favourite foods — for me — are more like Best In Group awards. My top comfort food is probably on the list of all timers, as is my number one drop-dead sophisticated dish, and my can’t-be-beaten special occasion dish. Which is probably Christmas pudding.
But foods that have the main effect of making me happy? Maybe I can start by listing a few, as they come to mind. Homemade marshmallows. Bought marshmallows if they are good enough. Homemade cakes, especially but not exclusively lemon cakes. The crumb does have to be moist, whichever cake it may be. Buttery mashed potato. Apple crumble. Rhubarb crumble. Boeuf bourguignon. Chocolate pudding at breakfast time. Crazily hot and tart som tum. Ripe peaches. How about something I ate in the last week? Oh yes — an eclair filled with caramel pastry cream, and topped with salted caramel glaze. Mmm. I did feel happy after I had sunk my teeth into that dreamy delight.
There are even foods that make me feel happy AND bad; pavlova is an excellent example of this subset. Pavlova is sweet and marshmallowy and luscious and downright vanilla lovely, and I always enjoy it. However, whipped cream does not agree with me, and I know that a stomach ache will be close behind each pillowy mouthful. Call me a stoic, but I eat it anyway.
I’m beginning to see something that my happy foods have in common: softness. Squooshiness is clearly a key factor. This all has a whiff of Freudian theory about it, but I must say that I was — and remain — very happy to leave baby food behind, so check that theory at the door, please. I will also say that a French casserole of beef in red wine is not really baby food. Except perhaps in France.
Aside from presenting little challenge to the teeth, I can see that most of those foods are also fairly sweet. I have no argument with that.
Japanese food seems to have the happy feel-good factor sewn up in a very particular way (let’s be clear though; I am not talking about onokomiyaki, with its fried, egg- topped and umami-sauced piled-up hyphenated excesses). Somehow a very pared-back, subtle, healthy line of cuisine is so exquisite that it makes me feel downright wonderful. Sashimi, pickles, miso broth, tataki . . . dishes like these leave me feeling notably great, and even a bit cat-got-the- creamish. Perhaps these are my failsafe foods for a delivery of happiness? Just when I think I am made happy by indulgence, I find I am best pleased by delicate minimalism.
So, why do some foods make me happy? Texture, flavour, sweetness — they’re all factors. Familiarity too. I don’t think that I could use any of those aspects as happiness predictors though. Some foods make me happy just because they do. I am happy to leave it at that.