Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Funeral Food

by The Foodist

Unfortunately over my holiday break from school a family member passed, a well-loved man who was devoted to his wife (They just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year), his children, and his town. I've been to a few funerals in my day so I have seen plenty of funeral food. But I can say without doubt that I have never seen anything like what I saw last week.

But before I tell about what I saw I need to fill you in a bit about my late uncle.

My uncle spent the majority of his life in service to his town as a police officer, and later, police chief. So as you can imagine he was a regimented man with very strong ties to the community. On the days of his viewing, there must have been 250 people a day who came to pay their respect. The line to get into the viewing was out the door and around the corner. But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Back at my aunt's house, you couldn't go two inches without bumping into a fruit basket. I'm not sure if its the new fad in funeral food or what, but I wouldn't think to send a fruit basket. The town car wash, a multitude of local businesses, offices and departments my uncle was involved with all sent them. It got to the point where my cousins were fire-bucketing fruit baskets from the upstairs into the garage. If I were a thief breaking into her garage I would swear the lady was either insane or ran a fruit basket business by the time we were done stacking them up.

Then came the real food. The chicken, the pizza, the chips, sandwiches, the drinks... you name it. My aunt and uncle were always huge on family gatherings, they had played host (bless them for it) to our family reunions for years. Laying out spreads of tin foil covered, sterno-lit, steaming piles of food for us to enjoy and it was both heartwarming and amusing to see the same spreads at the time of mourning.

Immediately after the funeral was a brunch at the same catering hall that had played host to numerous of the families events, including my uncle and aunt's 50th wedding anniversary. The owner and his son have run the location for years and know my cousin Danny very well. The doors were opened to the family the second they got word they needed a place for brunch, and they did not fail to impress.

Now truth be told, I've never been totally keen on catering. There are some great places out there that do really good food. But I don't usually get much pleasure from catering or eating a catered event. I feel like a cog in a wheel on both ends. When I eat catered food I feel as though I'm doing so because its both required of me and if I don't I wont eat again for awhile. When I work a catered event I feel like the food is very impersonal. There's not the same love put in when you start a single dish from scratch and finish it on one plate.

But with the attention and love that was put into that brunch I'm not so sure I had that same feeling of being ill-used this time around. With the food, and booze flowing and bellies full I saw smiling faces, heard laughter, and watched grief get closed out for a short period of time. Maybe that's the real point of Funeral Food.

We talk about people turning to food to cope with troubled times and personal issues and we see the post-funeral buffets laid out in movies and on TV. But I don't think we give it much thought. We chalk it up to part of the grieving process, but its so much more then that. Food has the beautiful ability to bring us closer together in good times and bad, and when our bellies are full our hearts get lifted.

My cousin Danny gave me a quick run through of the catering hall's kitchen before I got back on the road. I met the owner's son, who had come in at 5 that morning to knock the meal out. After giving my thanks and turning to leave he looked at my cousin and said, "Come back soon Danny, and on a happier occasion..please."

It kind of stuck with me a little bit. It wasn't that the owner and his son had only opened their door to a customer. They had cooked a meal for a friend in need, and doing so, paid their respects to a friend.

There's kinship in that for me. I have, on more then one occasion, been in the kitchen cooking for funeral guests. There's something warming and welcoming about a kitchen in hard times. In your heart you know its a dark time, but in the kitchen you're creating, and in doing so smoothing out the rough edges.

So next time tragedy strikes at your friends or family, pick up a knife, a saute pan, a whisk. Create something. Fill someone's stomach and lift their heart. Because at the core, that's really what cooking is about.


Tags said...

When my little brother died at 22, even though he was suffering through two years of leukemia, it was like a knife right through the heart. The fact that he died in my mother's arms on Mother's day made it that much harder to bear.

The one thing that lightened the load (besides seeing over 500 people show up at his funeral) was seeing so many friends and neighbors actually making homemade food and dropping it off at my folks's house.

Now, reading your account of your uncle's funeral just reawakened that memory, and I'm in tears as I write this. You are so right, it really does a great job consoling, it really does help with the grieving.

Up until then, I saw funeral food as almost a cliche, but it really does have a powerful effect, especially if it's homemade.

fiat lux said...

First off, I am sorry for the loss of your uncle.

A note about the fruit baskets -- this probably isn't relevant to your situation, but in the Jewish community, it's considered impolite to send flowers to a family that has suffered a loss. Food, or at least fruit, is considered the "right" thing to send. I'm told the reasoning is that flowers quickly wilt, which is a reminder of death, but food is about life.

When my grandfather died, I remember being overloaded in cookies, because there was a cookie shop a block from his apartment and everyone who stopped in to make a shiva call would pick up a dozen cookies to bring with them. By the end of the week Grandma's freezer was so full of cookies there wasn't room for anything more.

Anonymous said...

A funeral that celebrates life is a gift.
Last week I was asked to cater a funeral.
The gentleman that passed had retired and became a clown for the last 20 years of his life.
Several of the mourners came in full clown gear and all 300 guests were given red clown noses.
The center pieces all had something to do with his schtick and were instigators of reminiscent stories.
I wish all parties went this well and inspired people to come together.
This man found his calling after 65 and left many people with a gift that he can be proud of.

boberica said...

I'm very sorry for your loss, Bob, and best wishes to your family.
My father passed away last year this time, and I have that unforgettable memory of the fruit platters and long lines of visitors at the wake. It's funny how the same food that we'd crack jokes about at a wedding, becomes something so special and appreciated. Maybe it's the small town banquet hall, where you went to high school with all the folks that are making the lasagnas and stuffed peppers. Dad had a little time to plan, and insisted that there were Zweigels white hots, not just Italian sausages.
best wishes

JunkyPOS said...

Nothing puts life more in perspective more THAN death. I'am sorry for your loss.

Jennie/Tikka said...

You know, its ironic...I said something pretty close to what you said, Bob, just this past Saturday. It was my night to be chef and cook dinner at our local homeless shelter and they asked me to say something to the kitchen before we served. All I could think of to say was, "Its really not so much about the food - though, they do need it. Its about giving them something they need, helping them to feel better at a hard time in their lives. So let's try a little harder, smile a little bit more, and be a comfort tonight."

Very sorry for your loss, BdG. As you know, I've got a special place in my heart for those first responder types. Much respect....much respect.

Jennie/Tikka said...

Okay - chalk it up to being a bit loopy and on medication right now....that was of course direct to our Foodist and not BdG.

Charlotte said...

When my brother died in a car wreck 4 years ago, my dearest friend looked at me (after talking me through the calls to my family) and said "Come on, we need meat." What? Off we went to the store and then Nina made pot roast -- two of them, actually, because there were going to be people in the house, and they were going to need food. It was a terrible week, but my kitchen was the center of it - there was pot roast, and restaurant pans of pasta from our freind Jim's restaurant and trays of cookies and muffins and whatever else people brought. It was a terrible week but leavened by the fact that my kitchen was full of people eating and talking and cooking ... food is life, and life goes on, even in those times we're not sure we want it to ...

TGJR said...

I offer my condolences for your late uncle. You must feel very fortunate to have known someone to warrant such an overwhelming response from the community.
I experienced a similar experience as the fellow who was catering but not cooking a meal but running their restaurant.
I am a full time student who works almost full time for a small family restaurant here in WI. My bosses are Father/ Son and their wives and no one else so it ends up bringing an already naturally close knit group of people who work in the restaurant a little bit closer. We baby-sit and play with the Son’s kids, we all hang out (and drink) together at the end of the night and on particularly busy nights, share a meal as well. Last December my two main bosses (the father and son) found out that their only daughter/sister had died due to diabetic complications in their hometown in ND. Naturally the father left immediately to go visit his ex-wife and start getting the arrangements all in order while the son and his wife kept the restaurant open since the weekend was one of our busiest (holiday parade and college graduation on the same weekend). That weekend I found out that the services were going to be the next Monday-Wednesday and they wanted to know if I would run the restaurant in their stead. I accepted and found myself on a crash course on giving discounts, counting the till, checking out servers… you know the bit. Basically long story short that was what I could do for their family, my restaurant family; was to keep their business, their life, running. I too, hope that if there is ever a need for me to step up again that is for a happier occasion.

boberica said...

I have erred, Foodist. Best wishes to you and all your family as well in these trying times.

Deborah Dowd said...

I am so sorry for your loss. Your uncle sounds like a wonderful and well-loved man. Funeral food is the glue that holds people together at a really tough time. It gives them an excuse to smile, to talk, even to laugh at a time when they are not sure if they will ever laugh again. It is not what it is, bu simply that it is... to sustain, to comfort,to provide a common experience to help us make sense and relive memories that make it possible for us to go on.

Remember, cry, laugh, and yes, eat- to honor a life well-lived.

Linda (aka IdahoRocks) said...

Hello foodist,

I am very sorry for your loss.

I do not like death at all and it lingers like a weight that I drag for days and weeks behind me.

That being said, when my father died at the fairly younger age of 63 yrs., I dreaded the funeral. Yet, I heard there so many stories that I never knew about my father, that in the end, I was grateful for the experience. As for the food, I greatly appreciated my Italian aunt offering to just buy a catered spread, and then, I think I barely thought about eating because I kept cooking and cooking so my family, especially, could have a bit of nourishment with food that comforted.

My father always told people that they'd better learn to love spaghetti with meat sauce because that's all they'd ever get in heaven. I think of him in spaghetti heaven almost every day.

The Foodist said...

Thanks for all the kind responses.

Ive sat Shiva before but never realized its impolite to send flowers. That explains the lack of them there! Thanks for that info.

One of the hardest things to do when someone passes is deciding what you can do to help. I think by working in the food service industry it gives us the chance to actually do something.

Death has a way of rendering the living powerless, but cooking is a great way to break from that.

Thanks again all.