This Book Celebrates Comfort Food in All Its Forms
Devilled eggs, Marmite spaghetti, cake. In Mamma: Reflections on the Food That Makes Us, London food writer Mina Holland champions the dishes your mum used to make and the joy of a humble home-cooked meal.
It's not right that I'm wearing jeans and a jumper for my first ever taste of devilled eggs. Mina Holland fills a plate, the fat yolks full of oily anchovy, sriracha, mayonnaise, and curry powder. I look down at my clothing, wishing it were an Abigail's Party-esque number in burnt orange polyester.
But here we are. At least there's sherry.
The London-based food writer has just published her second book, Mamma: Reflections on the Food That Makes Us, a collection of recipes (pilfered and inherited), essays, and interviews with chefs and writers like Yotam Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden, and Anna Del Conte, on the feelings and histories tied into food we make at home.
That includes these "Pegasus Eggs"—a retro finger food (improved by a mythical name) Holland's mum made her for birthdays when she was a horse-obsessed kid. In Mamma, they sit alongside more familiar comfort foods: potatoes, pasta, leftovers.
Holland's as keen on talking about food while eating food as I am. And so, armed with a bottle of Manzanilla Deliciosa en Rama, we pass one Friday afternoon doing just that.
"The thing about home cooking," Holland says, grating an impressive block of Grana Padano, "is that it's very ordinary. It's about repetition, the things we go back to time and time again."
Cooking for oneself is as much about nurturing as filling a belly. Whether it's an oozing pile of cheesy mash or a slightly laborious pie, it's an everyday opportunity to create.
Writing Mamma, Holland noticed people were eager people to share stories about the food they were raised on: "We all have our own version of the same story." Like well-worn anecdotes, recipes get passed on and evolve depending on the audience or the mood.
Popping another egg into my mouth, I think of party food my mum used to cook: a jelly hedgehog with sliced pears for spikes, passed down from hers. Generations of tall adults silencing manic kids with magical food! It's hard to remember meals eaten in restaurants that leave the same fond feelings as home cooking.
"It's been really nice," Holland says, filling a deep pan with water, "writing something so relatable."
The Pegasus Eggs are disappearing with speed. I've already eaten half a dozen (the curried mayo ones are clear frontrunners) and I eye Ernie, Mina's blue grey whippet, wondering if he can shoulder some blame.
Holland continues: "Our appreciation of food is much about emotion as taste, but it's not always a positive association."
It's something she chats about with psychotherapist and writer Susie Orbach (over toasted panettone, naturally) in one of the book's interviews. Orbach's mother was obsessed with eating and not eating, the latter punishing the former. Mamma, then, isn't always the bosomy mother we see caricatured to sell jars of readymade pasta sauce. For Holland, "Mamma's cooking" is about what we inherit from those before us, and how it ends up on a plate.
Sometimes, Mamma is Grandma. Holland's granny was the type of woman who rarely looked at recipes.
"She had vague instructions to herself pinned in the kitchen, written down the side of chopped up cereal boxes," remembers Holland.
The two cooked together every summer back in Norfolk.
"She'd make this dhal that she'd leave on the hob for days, each time adding a bit of water and salt and bring it back to life. It'd go on and on and on."
Days-old dhal has it's place, but really, what's more comforting than carbs? For our main course, Holland is making Anna Del Conte's Marmite spaghetti, which sounds like a perfect hangover cure, strictly to be eaten cross-legged on the sofa. The brown stuff is ladled into a pan of foaming butter. It bubbles, sending salty fumes up our noses.
Nigella Lawson has called Del Conte is "the best writer on Italian food there is." A cult icon for generations, I only heard about through the recent BBC documentary, in which the two chefs nose around Soho's Italian grocery stores, before getting sozzled in the kitchen. There are moments when Del Conte, who is 92, is stern with Lawson; chastising Brits for over complicating flavours and serving Bolognese with spaghetti. (It should only ever be eaten with fusilli).
Could you eat vegetables with this Marmite pasta? I ask. Or would it get you a scolding from Anna?
"You can do whatever you want!" Holland says. There aren't rules.
"But," she laughs, scooping a mug of starchy water from the boiling spaghetti, "Anna tells a story of having someone over to eat. They're eating pasta and this guest asks for salad. Anna's husband—who was English—says, outraged, 'This is an Italian household! You do not have salad with pasta!'"
Another lesser-known food writer whose influence peppers both Holland's cooking and writing is Laurie Colwin, whose much-loved column for Gourmet magazine often espoused the joy of eating in.
"She wrote these lovely, pithy funny essays that often end with a recipe," Holland says.
The more I hear about the women who inspire Holland, the more I wonder why I ever eat out. It seems the most fun to be had is at home.
The Marmite spaghetti is, for the record, delicious. The Grana Padano and Marmite bond together in salty, umami harmony.
As we twist the final strands around our forks, I ask about leftovers. In Mamma, they're praised as the humble foundation of many a traditional comfort food. I'd never considered that trifle is basically a custardy second chance for stale bread. And thank god for leftover cabbage, without which we wouldn't have bubble and squeak.
"The cool thing about cooking with leftovers is that no one else can make the same thing as you because no one is left with the same remains," says Holland. "There's loads of things I've cooked with leftovers that I could never recreate again."
In the spirit of improvisation, Holland finishes our lunch with a cake that's a mash-up of her mum's plum and almond "shuttle"—a sort of folded-pastry frangipane nobody's heard of. Here, the butter's been replaced with olive oil and plain yoghurt.
"It's nostalgia food," Holland says, removing decorative rosemary sprigs before slicing right through. "The taste transports me home. I should've made my own puff pastry but I often buy readymade stuff."
I am stuffed but can't wait to dig in.
"Do you want more tea?" Holland asks. "Or more sherry? We've almost finished the whole bottle …"
All photos by Dante Holdsworth.