Hygge is the posture of the Danes in the long dark months of a northern winter. They create environments of beauty and pleasure, safe from the harsh elements outside. Candlelight in the windows, wood piled high for the hearth, knitted blankets, hot tea, and good books. Everything this hobbit of a girl could ask for.
As an Italian-American, a cook, and a food enthusiast, I can’t help but link hygge to cuisine. If hygge is about comfort, then is it not also about comfort food?
As seasons change, we mark them by what we eat, don’t we? Watermelon and corn on the cob in the summer, soup and pumpkin spice lattes in the fall, cookies and hot chocolate in the winter. It’s what we look forward to and the way we welcome the season into our hearts. It’s not Christmas without eggnog, and it’s not the Fourth of July without pie. That’s just how it is.
But I’m finding this outlook untenable of late. I live with autoimmune disease, and one of the best modes of managing my pain and fatigue is through diet. Gluten and dairy went long ago, and between my own research and my N.D.’s suggestions, I’ve been through some of the most complex and obscure eating regimens you’ve never heard of. Including right now. I’m on a diet that doesn’t allow leftovers or premade foods of any kind, along with a list of off-limits foods that make most (all?) deli and restaurant food forboden. Imagine, then, how much I’m in the kitchen.
I don’t mind the kitchen, As we turn toward fall, I find myself there anyway, making soups and roasting things in the oven. I drink more tea. But what’s hard for me is that I can’t do fall comfort food. Toasted cheese sandwiches with gruyere and caramelized onions, boeuf bourguignon, butternut squash lasagne, pumpkin bread, or even just some buttered toast with my tea. I miss it intensely.
I won’t, however, miss migraine pain and nausea that lasts for days, brain fog, exhaustion that leaves me bedridden, heart palpitations, joint pain, or any of the other dozens of symptoms I deal with. I’d like to say that this diet is the magic bullet freeing me of all malady, but this diet, like all the others, is just another stab in the dark. I hope that I’ll hack some solutions for the health struggles that plague my life, but it is a very slow hit-or-miss process involving pharmaceuticals, supplements, diet, exercise, lifestyle adjustments (hello, stress!), environmental factors, and a lot of other rogue variables. Still, I soldier on, hoping for at least partial breakthrough.
I find in myself a surprising reality: it is very hard for me to enjoy experiences without the enjoyment of good food to go with it. The first week I began my current regime, a friend invited me to a girl’s night with wine and nibbles. I love this friend and had been longing for time with her. But knowing I couldn’t eat or drink with everyone else sapped my keenness to go. Not consuming made me feel like a ghost–hardly there, untethered to the human world.
Ditto having people over for dinner. Ditto the State Fair. Ditto church barbecues. Ditto back-to-school welcome receptions. It’s not like I won’t go if I can’t have something to eat (inevitably, I can’t, so I would have to become a recluse), but knowing I can’t partake affects my joy and desire. Events that used to seem fun now feel like a chore. Worse, a gauntlet of temptations and social obstacles. Do I explain why I’m not eating and come across as self-involved, or do I not explain and risk seeming rude or ungrateful?
Putting aside individual events, I feel a bit sidelined from everything people love about the coming of cold weather and the season at hand. I love the concept of hygge, but how can I have it without the pleasure of delicious seasonal food and drink? Hygge is about intangible wealth and my life feels impoverished with so many restrictions around eating. It’s hard to feel cozy when you’re drinking a smoothie on a cold morning instead of eating warm oatmeal or drinking a latte.
But then I realize, hygge is not about indulgence. In fact, hygge is symbiotic with discomfort. It wouldn’t exist without the harsh realities of winter. It’s a response–a kind of non-violent protest against the supremacy of darkness and desolation. It says, Despite the weather, despite the difficulty, we choose to make this beauty. We choose to keep lighting these candles and casting our love-light into the darkening world.
So how do I live this kind of defiant joy in the landscape of my own winter? It’s a choice. A candle may be a poor substitute for the sun, but the fact I can keep it close and defy the night is what makes it dear. Likewise, squash soup may be less satisfying than squash lasagne, or herbal tea less rich than coffee with cream, but I can still make them special, make them mine. Use a lovely tea cup, share the meal with a friend–defy the ways that disease tries to steal the light and joy from my life.
In the end, it’s not about what I’m having or not having. It’s about seeing and making beauty from the resources at hand in seasons of want and seasons of plenty. It is finding in myself the invincible light that only I can kindle in the darkness.
“My dear, In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realized, through it all, that…In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
J.M. Roddy firmly believes that food is a love-language and healing is available for those who seek it. A writer of fiction, mother of two, wife to her best friend, and writing teacher, she is happiest with a book to read and something lovely to drink.