Food for the Soul

When my grandfather died on Christmas Day in 1993, he was in the home where my extended family traditionally celebrates the holiday. My grandmother, though distraught, quickly decided what to do next. “He said he didn’t want to ruin everyone’s Christmas,” she told us. “So we’ll still host everyone here.” We celebrated in our usual way, minus the Yuletide cheer of other years: My grandmother prepared the turkey, and family members brought their designated side dishes.

In the days that followed, my grandmother’s refrigerator filled with honey-glazed ham, casseroles, deviled eggs and pies. I was a junior in high school, living with my mother less than a mile away from my grandparents’ San Antonio home, and it was my first real exposure to the strong connections between food and death. The food comforted our family, freed my mother’s and grandmother’s time for funeral planning, and showed how much our family and friends cared about easing burdens during that time.

Lisa Rogak’s book, “Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World,” explores this topic—panning the globe for recipes while also drawing on commonalities across cultures. Food accompanies death for a number of reasons: to comfort the living; as an offering to ward off the newly dead spirit from taking another member of the home; to send the dead on their journey to the afterlife; and as an offering of a favorite food or drink to the dead, just to name a few.

Traditions highlighted in the book are accompanied by recipes—some with straight-to-the-point names like “Funeral Potatoes,” “Funeral Pie” and “Funeral Smorgasbord.” Rogak claims that any caterer will tell you that more food is consumed at funerals than at weddings. She surmises that the living feast to remind themselves and rejoice in the fact that they’re not yet dead. In addition to food, though, Rogak points to another constant that appears across cultures: alcohol. Lest drinking after a funeral be considered taboo, the author reassures us that “the vast majority of cultures take great pains to lubricate their sorrows with alcohol.”

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Another book, “Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral” by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, highlights funeral food traditions of the Deep South, or at least the Anglo-American Deep South. Metcalfe and Hays offer a fine collection of recipes for “stuffed eggs” (don’t call them deviled), casseroles, cakes and pimiento cheese. 

Here in Texas, ties between food and death are strong. Like mourners of the Deep South, we turn to deviled eggs, potatoes, casseroles—basically anything that is easy to prepare and keeps well in the refrigerator. But also,with our close ties to Mexico, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is widely celebrated. Vianney Rodriguez, Sweet Life blogger and co-author of “Latin Twist: Traditional and Modern Cocktails,” celebrated Día de los Muertos each year of her childhood in South Texas, and now she shares the tradition with her children. In fact, Rodriguez’s children know the stories of her grandparents because of the celebration. During the three-day observance (October 31 through November 2), Rodriguez prepares an altar on an antique buffet in her home with photos of each grandparent, tequila for her grandfather and dried marigolds, which are thought to guide the spirits of the dead to the altar to be present with family. Calaveras, or sugar skulls bearing various facial expressions, are also part of the tradition. Rodriguez chooses a calavera representing the personality of each deceased family member and places it on the home altar, as well. The living family members celebrate by gathering together and cooking the favorite dishes of deceased family members. Rodriguez was even inspired to create a recipe for a Día de los Muertos marigold margarita in honor of her grandfather and his beloved tequila. “It’s a time when we’re sad that they’re gone,” she says, “but we’re happy to celebrate their lives and invite their spirits back.”

Food brings comfort, celebration and memory during times of loss—it’s a constant in nearly every culture. “When you celebrate, there’s food,” Rodriguez says. “When there’s a loss or a struggle, there’s food. We’ve had a lot of hard times in our family and we’ve had a lot of good times, but food keeps the doors of communication open.”

By Jen Hamilton • Photography by Vianney Rodriguez