x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Love is blind when it comes to comfort foods from our pasts

Food that I wouldn't serve to guests can be a very emotional affair for me.

The first-century philosopher Apollonius of Tyana had this to say of the slave-cum-storyteller Aesop: "Like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths."

Not surprisingly, my favourite Aesop's fables were always the ones that depicted food in one way or another. The Fox and the Grapes is a classic tale about managing cognitive dissonance; something I have never been very good at. The notion of wanting something less because it's unattainable is hard to grasp for those of us who are overly committed to the hunt itself.

The story also happens to be the source of the term "sour grapes", a clever reminder that it's not about whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. It's a lesson in which most of us could use a refresher course from time to time. Ramadan has the ability to render the spirit more vulnerable in ways that can both enrich and challenge; it's a particularly poignant time to remember to play nicely.

When I stopped writing restaurant reviews in New Mexico, I dreaded being asked for an opinion on where to eat. Since it was no longer my job to have my finger on the pulse of what was currently the best and most exciting in the restaurant scene, I preferred to have my fingers in other pies instead.

The natural result? I fell into a pattern of eating only what I felt like eating, in a location of my own choosing. My choices had nothing to do with trends, and even less to do with seeking delicious dishes and impeccable examples of service. Instead, I was lured by reliability, consistency and proximity. I was finally free to eat in restaurants where I have a relationship with the owners: a detail that would have automatically disqualified said restaurant from being reviewed by yours truly.

For example, I happen to love a particular Caesar salad at a Santa Fe cafe because it tastes like the Caesar salads of my youth: limp romaine, stale croutons, a creamy dressing tart with lemon juice, pre-grated Parmesan cheese scattered on top. It's not a particularly good salad, and I'd never recommend it to a Caesar salad fanatic, but what can I say? There's no accounting for taste when the emotional appetite is involved. It tastes like the Caesar salads I remember eating in pizza chains when I was little.

Similarly, for a 2am snack in the spirit of the suhoors (predawn breakfasts) of Ramadan past, which are forever associated with the ridiculously delicious sandwiches my mother made, I created a sandwich that was so good I had to lean against the kitchen counter to support myself after I took the first deliriously wonderful bite.

The simple genius of it was almost too much for my nostalgia to bear: canned tuna, mayo, mustard, celery and onions, spooned into pockets of toasted Arabic bread filled with crunchy romaine lettuce and stacks of tangy dill pickles.

Again, it probably wasn't a very good sandwich, but it had been years since I'd made myself a replica of the tuna sandwiches that I grew up eating. Would I serve it to a guest? Never. But I'd serve it to my brother and sisters in a heartbeat. Love is the blind spot here. It's cognitive dissonance at its finest - and it can turn sour grapes into sweet ones. If familiarity breeds contempt, then it also bakes some mean comfort food. Claus Wedekind is a Swiss biological researcher whose sweaty T-shirt study in the mid-1990s became an overnight meme that earned permanent placement in the cultural vocabularies of Echo Boomers such as myself. The double-blind study indicated that people are most powerfully attracted to those who are the least genetically familiar, and that such attractions are bound to produce the strongest and healthiest children.

Neophobia (a fear of novelty) and neophilia (a love of novelty) have a dramatic effect on how we perceive foods that are familiar and unfamiliar, and a willingness to try new things in life doesn't always translate to an open and objective palate.