Pleasures of Food
The psychology behind comfort food and the nutritional consequences.COOKING SCHOOL SUNSHINE COAST
By The Sacred Chef
I have always been passionate about food. It has, in fact, been a cornerstone of my existence. I recognised the signs early on, when I did not come off the bottle (alas breast feeding was out of vogue at this time) until I was about four years old, and I made quite a commotion about it then. That warm white milk spurting forth from that rubber teat was obviously a sensual and nourishing feed. Following that I remember a wonderful meal that mother used to make me, consisting of warm runny soft boiled eggs mashed up with torn crustless fresh white bread, the merest splash of milk and salt and pepper, mmmmm.
Ah food…it is a heady mix of psychological spells wound up in tasty matter. Foods that comfort us, foods that excite us and foods that calm us down. Our palate and our attachments to certain foods are I think all born of a time when we inhabited a yeasty humid world of milk sops and wet nappies. Textural considerations are of utmost importance when discovering dishes that provide us with inner sensual happiness: viscous soups and sauces, gooey eggs and soft steaming scoops of mashed potato, or balls of sweetened sticky rice and slippery steamed dim sum.
Eating food is pleasure and filling the empty tummy with something very scrummy is best. Pleasure. Is it a universal primary motivation? Or is it simply the avoidance of pain? Is hunger, once satisfied, the end of the matter? Or do we seek to enter that satiation by choosing just what we put in our mouths? The pursuit of pleasure: to achieve sensual gratification. Is it inextricably linked with our need for nourishment? Babies must have succour and must be touched to survive, and thrive to adulthood. Food in my opinion is not just fuel and not simply the sum of its parts. It is more than a list of kilojoules, fats, carbs and proteins. Like love it must be made pleasurable to do its work well.
Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) states: "The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together. The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life." However, perhaps Oscar Wilde put it more succinctly when he said, "Pleasure is the only thing to live for."
Has my passionate relationship with food ever got out of hand? Yes. I was a fat child for a couple of years, and I paid the price with my slim, bordering on acetic father, ridiculing me whenever possible about my new found weight. Lolly addiction was a real problem for me at this time, as my mother, who did not enjoy making cut lunches, would endow me with forty cents tuckshop money and I would invest it at the corner shop in a large white paper bag stuffed with mixed lollies. I would share these with my best friend at the time, and he would entertain me with half his lunch, which consisted of sliced white bread sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. So as you can see my flirtation with food as pleasure flourished a long time ago. Trips to the dentist, despite all that fluoride in the water, were far too common.
Appetite and control
Appetite - the desire to eat until one is full, or to eat a certain kind of food; to experience a particular feeling as that substance slides down your gullet. Control or denial - the decision not to satisfy that desire and to go without, or to distract oneself by exercising; having sex or working. Or to appease or tease, by allowing only one mouthful, or two or three mouthfuls, or just a homoeopathic dose of your bodies desired dish. The sins involving food and the bible's condemnation of gluttony inhabit us culturally and permeate all realms of our western civilisation. The way fat people are ostracised in our communities and portrayed in popular media as sad laughing stocks, and perhaps we all secretly feel that our derision will inspire them to lose weight and return to the company of the slim.
Can you remember the power of the lolly? Or do you have children who have reignited your experience with this over whelming obsession with these sugared jewels? The startling variety of colours, shapes and flavours. Surely these are the building blocks of taste experience for us all, as we sit quietly on the footpath outside the local deli sucking upon that first lozenge of truth. Milk bottles; musk sticks; bananas and sherbets, cobbers, raspberries, snakes and jelly babies, just to name a few of these highly desirables. Of course these addictions were managed in a cloak of normality, whilst competing at sport and doing homework, but always at the core of the pleasure principle was the lolly… and for me pleasure was life. I remember going to visit my maternal grandfather who was a doctor and lived in another geographical state, and he had a huge jar of jelly babies on top of the fridge. I thought this was great as we didn't have anything like this at home and he was a doctor after all. Such was the alluring power of the lolly that it permeated even the highest levels of society.
Later, working in a liquor store I came upon that same phenomenon again; but this time for adults. Shiny bottles of spirits and wines were their lolly equivalents. I could feel their hardly suppressed excitement as they fingered the bottles and read those colourful labels with gleaming tiny gold and silver medals stuck to them. Alcoholics; drug addicts and sugar fiends we are all dependent on the balance between our appetites and controls, and the psychology of our passions. What did the Buddha say, "that all life is suffering and suffering is caused by desire."
What about the neurological pleasure systems in the brain? Michael A. Bozarth from the University of New York's Dept of Psychology says "Neurological research has identified a biological mechanism mediating behavior motivated by events commonly associated with pleasure in humans. These events are termed "rewards" and are viewed as primary factors governing normal behavior. The subjective impact of rewards (e.g., pleasure) can be considered essential (e.g., Young, 1959) or irrelevant (e.g., Skinner, 1953) to their effect on behavior, but the motivational effect of rewards on behavior is universally acknowledged by experimental psychologists.
Motivation can be considered under two general rubrics-appetitive and aversive motivation. Appetitive motivation concerns behavior directed toward goals that are usually associated with positive hedonic processes; food, sex, and wine are three such goal objects. Aversive motivation involves escaping from some hedonically unpleasant condition; the pain from a headache, the chill from a cold winter's night are among the list of conditions that give rise to aversive motivation."
Hedonism then appears to be something that we should understand. The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines hedonism as "belief in pleasure as the highest good and mankind's proper aim". Personally I have been a big fan of hedonism and have lived my life as hedonistically as possible. However, having been brought up in a Christian /Presbyterian household, where hedonism was given a pretty bad name, it was necessary to throw off the shackles of the church's wowserism and to embark single mindedly upon the pursuit of pleasure. I imagine that many people reading this have felt similarly about their lives in terms of giving to themselves and grasping the true meaning of 'charity begins at home' - and in my case the kitchen.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of cooking that I have found is making up new dishes. When you are cooking everyday for hundreds of people, and although often making batches of the same dishes, it is in my nature to want to break out and try something completely different. I was at this stage in my own little restaurant cum takeaway and like many young people I found pleasure in novelty and variety. I had one particular customer, who by tacit arrangement, would receive whatever I could challenge myself to come up with. A dish or plate created right then and there with no prior thought, and as luck would have it, he would often arrive at the busiest possible time during service. I would be swearing sweating and smiling, and making haste with the pans. Usually the result would be rather good, and although frazzled by the experience it was ultimately rewarding. Creativity can be a hard task master, especially when you operate out of chaos. Cooking is however one of the few great arts that you physically put inside yourself, try eating a painting for instance.
So food has always been important to me and although when I first began cooking professionally I had not really recognised that, as I always thought that it would be something I would do until I found my true vocation. Cooking was not the supposedly glamorous job, that it is perceived to be today. Then, no, it was just another trade but I found it to be a very satisfying one. It was essentially creative once you had mastered technique, each day I would be challenged to come up with new and diverse dishes. Regular trips to the produce markets would have me coming across vegetables that I had never seen nor heard of. What does one do with a box of Kasava? Well here's one from Africa to get you started:
3 cups (or 2lbs.) grated kasava or manioc root
1 cup shredded frozen fresh young coconut
1 12 oz. jar of Macapuno Balls
1/3cup evaporated milk
1 14 oz. can unsweetened coconut milk
1/3cup. whole milk
1/2cup white sugar
1cup light brown sugar
1tbsp melted butter
Mix everything together, and bake in a buttered 9 X 13 inch pan for 2 hours at 325 degrees.
Other pleasurable delights…
Sacred Chef's Baked Spinach Pie
2 bunch field spinach washed and bottom stalks removed
2 med brown onions diced
½ cup strong white wine
4 large cloves garlic minced
1 Tsp ground cumin
1 Tsp ground coriander
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups fresh ricotta
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
2 free range eggs lightly beaten
1 cup chopped fresh basil
½ cup chopped fresh oregano
1 cup chopped walnuts
12 sheets filo pastry
½ cup melted butter
Sauté your onion, garlic spices in olive oil until translucent, cook in wile lastly before setting aside. Steam or blanche your spinach until just done immerse in cold water to stop the cooking process and then gently wring out excess water and chop into smaller segments and add a squeeze of lemon juice or a teaspoon preserved lemon rind finely sliced. In a large bowl mix together spinach, cheeses, egg, herbs, walnuts and your onion sauté and salt pepper to taste. I often add a little splash of a good quality soy sauce here and to most dishes really. In an appropriate baking dish spoon out your filling before laying sheets of filo pastry and brushing every second one with melted butter. Bake until golden brown in a moderate to hot oven. Serves 6-8.
Pumpkin and Pistachio Nut Soup
1 ripe butternut pumpkin peeled and chopped
2 large brown onions
1 Tsp minced fresh ginger
1 cup dry white wine (optional)
4 large cloves garlic minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ Tsp ground cumin
1 cinnamon quill
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ Tsp ground coriander
1 cup peeled pistachio nuts
2 cups chicken or strong veggie stock
2-3 cups purified water
1 cup watercress
1 cup pouring cream (optional)
In a large heavy based saucepan sauté your onions, garlic, ginger and spices in olive oil until translucent adding your wine in a few minutes before they are ready. Add in your pumpkin, stock and cover with water and continue to simmer for at least 40 minutes. In a blender blend your remaining ingredients with the cooked pumpkin and onion mix, leaving your cream if desired to whisk in by hand at the end. Serve with a sprig of watercress, a few sprinkled sliced pistachios and a dob of sour cream and fresh black pepper.
Oven Dried Tomatoes
Doing these at home will fill your house with an irresistible aroma that will have you salivating against your will. Hedonistic terrorists could use this process in their battle against the forces of parsimony. This operation will take a considerable amount of time and consumes quite a bit of energy/electricity or gas, so you get maximum slow food brownie points and I recommend that you do a big batch at one time to conserve energy and because they are so delicious you will kick yourself if you only do a few.
Lots of tomatoes (Cherry Tomatoes or small Romas)
Corn of garlic
Bunch of fresh rosemary
Bunch of fresh oregano
Bunch of fresh marjoram
Salt and pepper to sprinkle
Set your oven really low to around 80 degrees Celsius. Slice your tomatoes in half or quarters depending on size but smaller is quicker, place on baking trays sprinkle with finely sliced garlic, chopped herbs and salt and pepper and bake or dry for around eight hours. Serve on fresh crusty Italian bread with the finest extra virgin olive oil and your favourite cheese.
Savoury Mediterranean Vegetable Muffins
I made these muffins recently to take along to a night of chanting for Guru Purnima day, an Indian religious festival celebrated by those in the Hindu faith. I took along a journalist friend, Chris, and he enjoyed them so much that he has been haranguing me ever since to include the recipe in one of my columns.
11/2 cups plain flour
2 cups SR flour
1 tsp baking powder
200g unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste
5 whole 60g eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup sauted chopped onion
1 cup roasted chopped red capsicum
1 cup grilled chopped eggplant
½ cup black olives pitted and chopped
1 cup pecorino grated cheese
1 cup crumbled fetta
1 cup chopped fresh basil
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C. Grease muffin trays at least 12 muffin spaces. Sift flours, spices, baking powder into large mixing bowl and rub in butter to form a bread crumb like consistency - can do this in your mix master if you like. In a separate bowl beat your eggs, milk and add in cheeses, gently pour this into your big bowl of dry ingredients and fold remaining ingredients in to form raw cakey base glug with visible chunks of vegetable. You may like to stir in a further splash of extra virgin olive oil for consistency. Spoon into muffin trays and bake until golden brown and cooked through for about 40 minutes check with skewer.
©Sacred Chef.Appeared in WellBeing Magazine