I’ve been harping on now for quite a while about the interconnectedness of food and emotion, meals and feelings, snacks and sentiment. And I’ll probably continue to do so. But for those of you who are fully, or even partially, aware of this phenomenon, I’m going to talk about the natural extension of this knowledge: how to use it in a situation where inspiring the right emotions is of utmost importance.
There are loads of examples of emotionally charged situations if you think about it: a first date, a not-so-first date, consoling a friend, settling in with a new housemate, a party, a wedding, a funeral, a meeting to repair a friendship … You could continue like this for years. And each situation needs different emotions, different food.
First off you need to ask, do you know this person? Do you know what foods they like, what foods they don’t, or can’t, eat? Very few situations are well served by offering up a rack of lamb to a vegetarian, or vindaloo to someone who doesn’t like spicy food. If you don’t know what someone likes then the best option is to go for middle of the road crowd pleasers, and to avoid allergens if possible. For example, probably don’t include peanuts. That said, don’t feel you need to be too bland or strict with your choices, since anyone with quite restrictive eating practices will probably inform you, especially when it comes to things like life-threatening allergies. It can be a good idea even just to ask anyone you cook for if they have any particular dietary restrictions. Some suggestions from me would be:
• Pasta cooked up and served with creamy mushroom sauce. It’s super easy to make (lots of sliced mushrooms, a bit of cream, maybe a little oregano and thyme if you have it, cooked down and then mixed through the pasta) and is generally very well received.
• Pumpkin soup with crusty bread. There are hundreds of recipes out there, it can be made well in advance, and I’m not sure I’ve met someone who didn’t like pumpkin soup.
• Vegetable bake with rice. Once again, really simple to make (just slice up your veggies and layer them with cream and top with cheese and maybe breadcrumbs – the way you would a potato bake) and very inoffensive.
The next thing to ask yourself is, what’s going to happen after you eat? Do you expect (or hope for) any sort of physical activity? If so then you’ll want to keep your meals from being too heavy and rich, or else all you’ll inspire is lethargy. Would bad breath have a detrimental effect on anything you had planned? You should probably steer clear of strong flavours like garlic or sardines then. Will you need to do any quick thinking or complex reasoning? Probably don’t serve too much in the way of alcohol if that’s the case.
Once you’ve gotten those two introductory points out of the way, you’ll need to be a bit more specific in your inquiries. Do you want your meal to be fun in and of itself? A talking point even? Choose something a little unusual then, and present it in an interesting way. Make towers, drip sauce onto plates in pretty patterns, find something that uses unique cutlery, or create a little individualised bento box. Do you want your meal to be comforting? Make something familiar, maybe a little bit heavier or indulgent, and if the climate permits it, warm. Do you want your meal to be romantic? If possible, make it something that has personal significance. Choose things that are luxurious, and make foods that you use your hands to eat slightly bigger than bite-sized. Finally, do you want your meal to be just safe, with nothing standing out for good or bad? Choose something you know you can pull off, that you’ve made before. Don’t choose strong flavours, and favour things that can be made well in advance.
There you have it everyone. These are just some tips to start you off in using the foods you serve to set the mood, but it all comes down to a general awareness that the food in a room has a real impact on the emotions in that room. Everyone’s heard of real estate agents baking a batch of biscuits or a loaf of bread before an open house, but you don’t have to be a professional to use the same strategy and use food to your advantage.