meals in the mail

Comfort food

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When I was in my early 20s, my then-boyfriend and I used to go and stay with his grandparents, in their little blue weatherboard cottage in the country, beside a lake. I remember waking early in the morning and going for long walks on the sand, watching dolphin families fish for breakfast. Morning tea with his grandma, served precisely at 10am every day, was always tea in a big pot, and Iced Vo-Vo biscuits.

One year, a few days after Christmas, we were less than an hour into our journey back home to Sydney when we received a sad phone-call: my boyfriend’s grandfather had had a heart attack, and died. We immediately turned around and hurried back to the weatherboard house, which by the time we arrived was already overflowing with family-members: parents, sisters, uncles and aunties, all with their jobs to do, somewhere on the spectrum from grief-counselling to hearse-ordering, depending on their skill-set.

All except me. As the little-known girlfriend of one of the grandsons, I felt acutely in the way. Awkward, a noisy presence (although I rarely spoke) during a time when the family needed to close in, bunker down, and support one another.

Often, food is how we show someone we love them, when they are going through a difficult time. Something hearty and lovingly baked, and left at the doorstep to be consumed when there’s no time or energy left for cooking, or frozen for a later day.

But as a superfluous guest in the bereaved person’s house, I couldn’t do that, so I made the next best thing: tea. Pots and pots of tea. I made so much tea, in fact, that everyone got sick of it. I distinctly remember walking into the kitchen where my boyfriend’s mother and grandmother sat together over the table by the window, and offering to put on the kettle. “I think we’ve all had enough cups of tea for today, thank you Naomi,” they said.

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We had a bereavement in our family this week and, once gain, my mind turned to food.

I can’t erase the pain of those who are most affected, but I can sit in the stillness with them. (I have learned, since my 20s, that sometimes it is OK to be still with someone. We don’t always have to be doing, doing, doing). And the other thing I can do, this time, is make food. Nutritious food because grief can take a toll on the body. Hearty meals because they feel like edible hugs. Handy dishes that only need to be heated up to feed a whole family. And sweet treats, for emotional self-care and to have something easy to offer the inevitable well-meaning guests who drop around.

It was serendipitous, also, that the day after we lost our loved-one, I received a gift in the mail from Sophie Hansen (of Local is Lovely): her latest cookbook, A Basket by the Door. Actually, I received two copies of this book on the one day, one that I had pre-ordered, and another as a personal gift from Sophie.

Sophie’s book is all about food that is made to be given away. The edible care packages through which we share love during the large and small milestones of life: the loss of a loved one, a new baby, a school picnic, pre-exam jitters, a graduation, welcoming a new neighbour… and the list goes on.

This is such a heartwarming concept for a book, don’t you think? There is nothing fancy or flashy in here, and most of the recipes are relatively easy to make. The goal is to share love, not show off. Delicious, tasty, wholesome food that is intended to be given away (although Sophie does make the clever suggestion that we double some of the recipes, to keep some for ourselves as well!), alongside practical tips on how to ensure it travels well.

Country hospitality.

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(I realise at this point that this is starting to sound like a sponsored post: I assure you it’s not. I bought my own copy of this lovely book, and nobody asked me to write about it. I just really, really adore the concept of edible care packages, and even I can cook these recipes!)

For my grieving family, from A Basket by the Door, I have already made a rich and hearty lasagne, half to eat now and half to freeze for another day when cooking feels like too much. I’ve prepared a simple and delicious filling for chicken sandwiches so we can stuff it into crusty bread rolls and take it to the park to recharge in nature. I plan to make and freeze some bliss balls during the school holidays for the kids to take in their lunch boxes when term starts, and there’s a coconut and lemongrass broth that has caught my eye for dinner some night soon.

I baked the blueberry, lemon and rosemary cake you see in the photograph above this afternoon, as a treat for the children when they came home from school, tired, grubby and low on reserves. (It freezes well so there’s a lot of future after-school treats in that tin!)

Sophie made all the food for this book, and photographed it, herself, over two years. Doing it this way - slowly, thoughtfully - meant the food she made was shared in the way it was intended, with family and friends, each dish an individual act of abundance and love.

In this spirit, I was thinking I’d like to send you a care package, too, to say thank you for being my community.

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This blog is my happy place. I called it “Naomi Loves” many years ago, because I wanted it to be a celebration of the things, places and people I love, and that has never changed. In fact, of late I have really fallen back in love with this form of storytelling, and it gives me great joy to write a blog post each week.

But what really makes me swoon about this blog is you. In 2019, when so many people are saying blogging is dead and the only real community is on social media, you are here. You read, you leave your comments, you send me emails, and I cannot tell you how wonderful I feel to know that we are sharing this little time together, and that you allow me into your world in this small way.

Those of us here on this blog are a much smaller community than on my Instagram or my newsletter, but that makes it feel all-the-more intimate when I am writing to you, and I feel I can be more vulnerable here than anywhere else in public. It’s almost as though we’re family.

And so, I want to thank you. I’d like to give you my second copy of A Basket by the Door (the one I paid for, because the one Sophie gave me has a little note in it that makes it extra special to me). I won’t post this opportunity anywhere else online, I’m keeping it only for this little blog community, because I appreciate you so much.

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If you think you’d like A Basket by the Door, either for you or a friend, simply leave me a comment in this post below (if you’re reading this via email you just need to click on the title of this blog post to see it in your browser, and then you’ll see the comment box), letting me know what your favourite ‘edible care package’ is (either to give or to receive), and what makes it special. (Mine is chicken pie, but the why of that is another story for another day).

I know some of you have missed out on past opportunities on this blog because of time zones, so this time we can take it slow. I’ll choose a winner a week from today, on Friday evening, Australian Eastern Standard Time, and email that person. The opportunity is open to you anywhere in the world and, depending on the laws in your country, I might bake you a batch of my mother’s Anzac biscuits (they travel well) to go with the book.

Big hugs,
Naomi xo

UPDATE 15/04/19: This competition is now closed, and the winner has been notified. But if you’re in the mood for some inspiration, have a browse through all the kitchen-generosity in the comments below. It’s utterly heartwarming! And do still feel free to share your thoughts on this. The community on this blog genuinely makes it my happy place.

Why we all love brownies

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What is your go-to comfort food recipe? That one thing you can bake, stir, chop or pick that cheers you when you're down, makes any celebration sweeter, or reminds you of someone - or somewhere - that holds a special place in your heart.

Turns out that for many people all over the world, it's brownies. Rich, sweet, gooey, chewy (and easily made gluten-free) chocolate brownies. 

When I launched the "meals in the mail" project a few months back, I asked people to do two simple things:

1. Send me their favourite recipe in the mail, and
2. Tell me what makes it special to them

Now as I sort through all the heartfelt letters, delicious recipes and creative mail that came my way, themes are starting to emerge. And one of those themes is this: everyone loves brownies. 

I tender in evidence, these seven recipes. 

Sonya in Australia, for example, shared her recipe for dark chocolate brownies with salted caramel (below). She said: 

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"Home-made brownies can say a lot of things - I'm sorry you lost your job, let's celebrate the winter solstice - and this recipe has even survived a trip in the post. When my friend Jemma's second baby arrived, I baked these brownies, sandwiched them between two thick slabs of cardboard, and dropped them in a post box. They survived the journey from Canberra to Sydney in one piece."

Then Nanette in The Netherlands shared her recipe: 

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"I got this recipe from an English girlfriend when I was 25. Even 30 years later and some little changes, it is our favourite family brownie recipe. The whole family makes these brownies for birthdays, or just when someone is in need of chocolate or comfort food." 

From Canada, Sherry shared buttermilk brownies and a tribute to her mother Elaine: 

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"This is my mom's brownie recipe and I can't even begin to tell you how many of these I have enjoyed over the years. My mom is an amazing woman... in addition to raising three kids with a husband who was away much of the time, she worked full time and still managed to be there for all of our girl guide meetings and art shows. The brownies were and are still a go-to recipe that even the pickiest eaters enjoy." 

Jessica in Australia shared the recipe for Caramello brownies that won her boyfriend's heart: 

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"I first made these to impress my boyfriend and it must have worked because we're still together seven years later! They're always a crowd-pleaser and make your house smell great when they're baking." 

And then from Denmark, Linea shared her hygge-inducing Lazy Brownie recipe: 

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"This cake tastes like a little piece of chocolate heaven if you use good ingredients and a tiny bit of love! I love that moment of silence when everyone takes a bite and just enjoys the chocolaty-ness! My favourite thing to bake in winter-time and eat with a cup of tea." 

Laura in New Zealand shared the brownie recipe that helped her make it through some tough times: 

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"This recipe belongs to Kate, my boss at the New Brighton Library in Christchurch. Even though both of us no longer work in that library, her brownies helped the team get through some rough patches. They never let me down." 

And in Austria, Miya shared a recipe for olive-oil and sea-salt brownies that came to her via a friend in America, who adapted it from a recipe in the NY Times: 

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"I love this recipe for several reasons. Firstly, it's genuinely easy but decadent and delicious! Secondly, my husband produces olive oil in Greece so it's one of my favourite things to make for him if he needs something to showcase his products - an act of love, if you like. Last but not least, it was given to me by my hot-mess New Yorker friend Meaghan. We met in our first week of moving to Vienna 10 years ago, and have lived in and out of each other's homes ever since, sharing a love of music, baking and the charming contradictions that make Vienna what it is. So I'm passing this recipe on to you and your community in the spirit of our friendship and the city it was born in. Wholesome yet a little decadent, simple yet a little extravagant, familiar and cosy but also a bit of a hot mess. And if you ever come to Vienna, you're invited to coffee and cake!"  

So if you're wondering which of these seven recipes for brownies I'll share in the finished book, the answer is...

All of them. Naturally! Firstly, because this cook-book is not only about the recipes, it's also about the stories, the memories, the connections, and of course the mail. And secondly, because maybe you might want to try a little experiment when you read the book: a brownie bake-off for you and your friends, shall we say? I wonder what your favourite secret ingredient will be. Sea-salt? Caramellos? Buttermilk? Olive oil? A mother's love? 

Meals in the Mail is a cook-book project celebrating meaningful, nostalgic and comforting recipes from close to 250 people from all over the word, written by hand, and sent by post (often with stunning illustrations on the recipes, or the envelopes, or both). 

People who sent in recipes for meals in the mail will all receive a copy of the e-book for free, and get first dibs at buying the physical cook-book, which will be on a limited print-run.

If you'd like to be among the first to hear when both versions of the cook-book are available for sale, and to get updates on the projects and sneak peeks at the recipes, the best way is to sign up to my newsletter (right now I'm also giving away a copy of my mini e-book "Making Mail: 10 steps to writing letters that become keepsakes," to all subscribers). 

And now, back to the question I asked at the start of this blog post. I'm dying to know: what's your go-to comfort food recipe? (Is it brownies??)