They told me about childhood, class, love and more: what I’ve learned from Comfort Eating | Food
As Laura Whitmore, the elegant, highly aspirational TV presenter, squirted cold mayo into an upturned, raw mushroom cap, I realised that my Comfort Eating podcast had reached new levels of unfettered honesty. “It’s fancy, like an hors d’oeuvre!” she said, popping the whole slimy, slightly soil-laden, fridge-cold shroom brimming with bottled Hellmann’s into her mouth, then chewing with a real sense of joy.
Then it was my turn. I gingerly lifted the mushroom to my mouth and took a hesitant bite, causing mayo to rise over the sides of the cap: it tasted exactly as I’d imagined – no alchemy had taken place to make the sum bigger than its parts; well, not for me at least. But then, that’s the whole point of Comfort Eating, for which I’d previously tasted the private penchants of the likes of Stephen Fry, Russell Tovey and Rafe Spall.
Our secret snacks are deeply personal, come steeped in nostalgia and often stem from times in our lives when money was shortest, time tightest or our hearts most broken. Scarlett Moffatt, the ex-Goggleboxer who now lives in luxury in the north-east, introduced me to beans on toast with a thick layer of scrunched-up Wotsit crumbs on top, “to make them cheesy”. Why not use, um, actual cheese? “Well, cheese is expensive,” she replied, quite seriously, while sitting in her beautiful marble kitchen and overlooking miles of bucolic splendour. Her life has moved on dramatically from her early years, but the food she eats to make herself feel cosy hasn’t budged a jot.
In 2020, when we began working on a format for the podcast, the idea was to find a new way to talk to famous folk about their inner lives via what slides down their throats. Modern eating, I believe, divides into two distinct categories: the nutritious or name-droppy things that we’re proud to talk about, or to Instagram and generally broadcast, and the more revealing, non-pretty, downright weird things we never discuss in public. And it’s the latter that is Comfort Eating’s bread and butter, pardon the pun – that’s where the truth about people’s egos, vulnerabilities and priorities lies.
Deborah Meaden’s idea of heaven, for example, is an entire packet of roasted vegan sausages spread thickly with Marmite. When she’s filming Dragons’ Den, she dines nightly with all the other dragons at The Ivy, but when she’s home alone, she doesn’t even bother with plates, eating straight out of the foil tray and spreading the Marmite like cupcake icing. Deborah’s husband does all the cooking at home, so when he’s away on business, she has often been known to put chocolate bars between two slices of bread. She is fearless, focused and fully self-reliant in every area of her life, until it comes to feeding herself, when she’s more like a teenager left home alone for the first time.
Similarly, I now find it hard to watch Krishnan Guru-Murthy grill a politician without imagining him, childlike and twinkly-eyed, eating Ambrosia rice pudding straight from the tin after first stirring in a large spoon of raspberry jam (I’ve since done the same more than once for dinner). As for myself, quite apart from eating all the new snacks my guests have brought in (Russell Tovey got me back into very sweet cereal, so much so that I ordered in a box of American Froot Loops), each week I stocked up on the things I associate with comfort eating – Cadbury’s Mini Rolls, fondant fancies, Jammy Dodgers – and not one of them touched any of them. I was soon getting up in the middle of the night to eat them, and I’ve ended up with a raging sugar addiction.
What else have I learned? Well, much of it isn’t about food at all. While I’d imagined that luring stars to my home was a nifty way to save time on travel, in reality I’m doing a lot of bleaching, hasty DIY and general flapping about with a can of Mr Sheen. In fact, it’s sent me full Hyacinth Bucket. How could Stephen Fry possibly cope without a clean guest hand towel and four-ply rhubarb-scented toilet paper? After all that, he didn’t even bother spending a penny, either. His snack featured John West Skippers, which he mashed up with a fork, sending my cats wild, although the main thing I took from that interview is that sugar is usually our first taste of drugs, and I’ll now never look at sherbet quite the same again. Russell T Davies, meanwhile, taught me that buttered rice with black pepper tastes better than any Michelin-starred entrée, and Siobhán McSweeney from Derry Girls showed me that losing everything in a fire is a way to start again – oh, and that Tayto cheese-and-onion crisps are the stuff of the gods, even if the combo in which she eats them is a distinctly acquired taste.
What I’ve learned the most, however, is that if a celebrity reveals to me the snack they eat on a quiet night in, when they’re watching Netflix in a tracksuit and can’t be bothered to cook, they’ll end up telling me more about their childhood, their social class, their love life and their body confidence than they would in a dozen red-carpet interviews. Comfort Eating is a podcast about whether stars like ketchup, brown sauce or salad cream on their spaghetti hoops, but there’s much more on the menu than that.