Funeral Food

The Celts have a deep history with funeral rites. The Samhain, a festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead, includes three days of keening (a type of wailing chant) followed by four days of dan

The Celts have a deep history with funeral rites. The Samhain, a festival dedicated to the harvest and the dead, includes three days of keening (a type of wailing chant) followed by four days of dancing and singing.

Keening is also a traditional part of the better-known Irish wake, that period of time from death until the body is transported to the church for the funeral rites. I am preparing to host an Irish wake for my mom, but this isn't how she thought of it. There would be no wailing — that was an order. She thought of the other part of a traditional wake — the telling of stories and laughing as much as crying, the eating and drinking (come on, we're Irish, of course I'm talking spirits).

The parsons and the pastors and the reverends she collected over the years probably won't get it, but they will understand the food part. Bringing food to families in mourning is an ancient custom. In the book Consuming Passions: A Food-Obsessed Life, Michael Lee West notes, "When you bring food to a neighbor or friend, you are wisely letting the food fill in the gaps. Sometimes we say all the wrong things, but food knows all languages.

It says, 'I know you are inconsolable. I know you are fragile right now. And I am so sorry for your loss.' .... It is concern and sympathy in a Pyrex bowl."

Different ethnic groups and regions have specific dishes that constantly show up at funerals. The Amish prepare a funeral pie with raisins. In the South, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese make many appearances. Funeral Potatoes, a cheesy hash browns casserole, is so ubiquitous in Utah that they are called Mormon Potatoes, too. In Wisconsin you might still see Jell-O salads, potato salads, relish trays and meat and cheese sandwich trays.

But what comfort can we offer to ourselves as we prepare the food for the wake? They say that there's always plenty to eat at a wake because grief and hunger go together. I don't think "they" ever lost anyone, because if sadness could be bottled, someone would be making a fortune on a new diet pill. So I will find my comfort less in the eating and more in the preparing.

I'll make baked beans because cousin Mo would mysteriously appear each time she set them on the dinner table, the potato salad I made that she loved and the macaroni salad that he made that she loved. The cheeseball I found in her recipe folder that used to appear every Christmas, plenty of sweets, which she wasn't supposed to eat but seemed to develop a taste for more and more as she aged. I'll bake Grandpa's favorite spice cookies and the no-bake hay stacks we gobbled up as kids. I'll try to make her apple pie, but the crust will never be as good hers.

Side Dish
Seny Tapas Bar and Jean-Robert at Pigall's have unveiled spring menus. Pigall's includes first-course selections like local buffalo shank ravioli with hedgehog mushrooms, sunchoke, petit Basque and piment d'espelette and spring asparagus soup and flan with cauliflower, cream cheese and truffle flavor. Entrée selections include sea scallops with light lemongrass sauce, asparagus with hazelnuts, piopini mushrooms and potato galette. Seny's spring dinner menu has a condensed modern tapas selection with kumato tomato, onion and goat cheese ice cream and artisanal Spanish cheeses with berries, Marcona almonds and olive tapenade.

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