The comfort of strangers
Comfort is a relative concept. As are all concepts, like antidisestablishmentarianism, and art.
If you're a conceptual artist, it might be comforting to know that your cousin isn't going to call a news crew to film him defacing your artwork with red paint. Or, depending on your intentions, you might find extreme comfort in the knowledge that he is about to do exactly that, which will make you ever so much more famous.
But enough of art, whatever it means, or doesn't. Let's talk about food.
In food terms, for all those fortunate enough to choose what they eat, comfort comes from the same place. I've asked many people what food gives them most comfort, and no matter whether that person is a Michelin-starred chef or a siren clinging by her scaly tail to a cliff near Sorrento, the answer is the same. It's what their mothers fed them.
For some people, that means haggis, or okra, or tiny truffles marinated in the juice of sheep's brains or, in the case of sirens, whelks and slimy hagfish. For me, comfort meant my mother's bananas and custard. Fresh, yellow, banana-smelling bananas, thinly sliced and immersed in hot, homemade custard - the sort that gets a skin on it when left to stand. None of that newfangled carton-packaged nonsense.
It was a thing I could eat even when the world was at its darkest and my brow was fevered and it didn't seem as though unicorns were really real. The bananas and custard made them so, and all manner of things were well.
There was comfort, too, in my father's potato salad: floury potatoes coated in real mayonnaise with bits of vivid green parsley sticking to them. I couldn't resist this, even in my pre-teens when it was important to look like Olivia Newton-John in her black Grease latex suit. Potato salad is best when eaten slightly warm. Olivia will keep if chilled.
When we reach adulthood - another relative concept - these things change. In my younger-than-I-am-now-but-older-than-I-was years, one of the world's finest comforts was a rich, red Bloody Mary (double vodka, please, and hold the celery) with a plate of creamy scrambled eggs, the best thing to cure a raging hangover on a Sunday morning.
That and KFC once a year. Ah, how comforting it is to reach for the red box across the counter, already buckling from its moistening oil, open it and extract an attractively misshapen piece of deep-fried animal matter, bite into the crispy, spicy exterior - heaven - then reach the sodden flesh inside and be cured of the urge for another 12 months.
When I lived at the coast, there was nothing more comforting than going for a barefoot walk on a deserted beach in winter, with the mist gathering and the foam flecks flying and the wavelets numbing all my joints, then stopping at the friendly neighbourhood grocery store for a bag of wood and a bottle of red wine, and running on frozen feet into the pizzeria next door for a hot, cheese-dripping disc of delicious-ness to eat in front of a fire that slowly brought my metatarsals back to life.
Being relative, the concept of comfort is affected by elements other than alimentary contentment. Busy feeders of families find convenience foods immensely comforting, given their time-saving properties. There is nothing wrong with that, or with KFC, or bananas and custard, or pizza, or slimy hagfish, or whatever it is that makes your world feel right. I am comforted by knowing that if all artworks were edible, I'd understand them so much better.