Posted by: oysterculture | January 13, 2009

Funeral Food

I just returned from a brief trip to Omaha, Nebraska from my grandmother’s funeral.  She lived to be 93, which means there’s hope for me.  At the wake, I was talking with my cousins, when one posed the question, “what was the food that you most associated with grandma?”  We reached an easy consensus that it was her ‘Secret Recipe” and a Czech bread made with raisins, that I think was called houska.  We, grandkids, always asked for Secret Recipe which was not so secret, just jello mix, water and honey.  Grandmother did not go for sodas, or as we call them in the mid-west, pop.  The houska, toasted with a bit of butter melting into the nooks and crannies was fantastic.  Just thinking about it brings wonderful memories, such as the time she ran out of raisins and used chocolate chips.  She was very disappointed, and felt she had let us down.  But I thought she was genius, and from then on, always asked her to make the houska that way, and sometimes she humored me. 

The wake was held at her church where volunteers provided a lunch for everyone attending the funeral.  They served fried chicken, scalloped potatoes, green beans, salad, and chocolate cake for dessert.  All food from my childhood, that I had not sampled in years.  It was very comforting, as, I suppose, was their intention.  Because, while it nourished us, we fell comfortably into conversation; sharing treasured stories about my grandmother, catching up on family history and promising to connect more frequently.

Someone mentioned funeral food, and confess I never heard that phrase before – food specifically associated with funerals.  I conducted a quick search to see what I could learn.  What I found was not as much about the food, but that some cultures have unique customs involving food presentation.  Most, though, select food for its comfort factor.  I found this article on the Dallas Morning News Website regarding various funeral food the author encountered around the United States. 

I also stumbled across this wonderful transcript by Kim Lynn who did a great deal more research than me, and I greatly enjoyed reading what she had to say.

Google had nearly 2 million hits for funeral food, and I could fill this post up with examples.  One of the most curious items I found pertained to  ‘sin eaters’.  Some UK cultures had ‘sin eaters’ where poor people, and sometimes a village had dedicated individuals, ate food from the body of the deceased to take on the sins of the dead so that they might fare better in the  next life.   Nothing was mentioned about what happened to the ‘sin eater’ when it was his time to pass on, and he had not only his sins but those from all of the deceased persons he helped.

Funeral food works for me, it brought comfort and community to a disparate group at a difficult time .  As my father pointed out, he had not seen some of his cousins in 40 years, yet while tucking into their meal, they chatted as if their last visit was the previous week.  We joined people we had a suspicion were family, and quickly restablish our ties.  In the end, that’s what was really important.

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