a content='IE=EmulateIE7' http-equiv='X-UA-Compatible'/> Roberta's Realities: Funeral Food Traditions in America
"Don't be scared of your hunger. If you're scared of your hunger, you'll just be one more ninny like everyone else." - Olive Kitteridge - from the book 'Olive Kitteridge' by Elizabeth Strout

About Me

Danbury, CT
I'm a full-time substitute teacher at a large middle school. Married for just about 29 years with two grown sons (both redheads)! I'm living life with courage! One son is a Central Connecticut State University graduate and has a degree in Journalism - he minored in Cinema Studies. My younger son just received his BFA in Visual Communication Design from The University of Hartford where he was a student of the Hartford Art School. We are owned by a frenzied dachshund named Otis and a very large rabbit!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Funeral Food Traditions in America

I went to a funeral this week.  Not just any funeral.  My father-in-law died on March 15th.  He was grandfather to 7 children.  Two of them are my grown sons.  They are his eldest grandchildren and remember him with great affection.  He died of Parkinson's disease and it was not pretty.  In the last weeks he had lost the ability to swallow, chew or move his tongue.  Death was inevitable and prayed for so the suffering would end.  It was a tribute to his life that so many people came to the visitation and funeral mass.  The service was beautiful (much nicer than I had imagined it would be) and comforting for my mother-in-law.  After the service many were invited to Pellici's Ristorante, a local Italian restaurant in Stamford, CT for a luncheon.  It was a good way to end a stressful two week period and visit with family and friends that we haven't seen in a long time.  Too long.

America has a long history of tradition surrounding funerals (we have a 'National Museum' take a look at this link!) and even cemetery cleanings!  Only recently has there been a shift to restaurants for the post funeral meal or 'Repast'.  During the late 1800's and throughout most of the 20th century the meal was held in a family members home.  Everyone brought a dish and all of the women would pitch in to help feed the community.  Pieces of colored thread were tied around utensils to identify who the owner was!  People would share memories of the departed and share their memories of favorite food dishes, how they were prepared and why along with stories about food, family and departed family members.  Much of this has been lost with the migration of mourning families to restaurants.  This isn't all bad - it's just a change.  As the book 'America Eats' by Pat Willard puts it,
"although death continues to be one of the few remaining aspects of life that shakes us to our core, funerals no longer make the same social demands they once did.  Here's why: Relatives no longer live so close together and women are working at jobs away from home just as hard as men are.  These two factors, it can be argued, have changed American eating customs more than has anything else in recent years and funerals are particularly affected by this."
Many funeral homes have cashed in on this new stage in American life and have creatively added banquet halls and luncheon arrangements to their services.  To learn more about funerals click on this Wikipedia link.  While this is acceptable and a relief for families today there is still something lost and little comfort gained when you can't taste a familiar family dish.  And then there are the stories surrounding favorite family dishes that just shouldn't fade away. 

Cemetery cleaning is an old tradition that has largely disappeared.  Families would gather at the local cemetery to clean the family plot and those of neighbors.  This was a large community event involving long picnic tables underneath trees after lots of hard work, planting, raking and trimming.  Of course, this would never take place in a Catholic cemetery or probably any cemetery in my part of the Northeast.  This just doesn't happen here.  We're too busy.  And that's how the rich parts of life escape our grasp.

Here is a recipe from the 'America Eats' collection for biscuits that were frequently taken to these annual cemetery cleanings.  It's not hard.  It just takes time.

Beaten Biscuits

1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup ice water
4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
3/4 cup lard
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons sugar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Blend the milk and water together in a small bowl.  Combine all the other ingredients in a large bowl, cutting in the lard until it is evenly distributed.  Make a well in the center of the flour, then pour in the liquid.  Knead lightly until a dough forms.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to about a 1/4 inch thickness.  Cut circles from the dough using a biscuit cutter or the lip of a juice glass.  Place the circles on a lightly greased baking sheet and prick the tops with a fork.

Bake for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the tops are light brown.  Turn off the oven and leave the biscuits inside the oven with the oven door open.  The biscuits will sink a little as they cool.

Makes about 3 dozen.

Another recipe that has been popular over the years for funerals and gatherings of all kinds is the infamous 'Funeral Potatoes' recipe.  Click on this allrecipes.com link for a gloriously bad for you potato casserole!  Juddy had this offering in her family's recipe box.  It's much healthier and essentially the same thing.  Besides, if you don't know how to make a white sauce, you need to learn.  Enjoy!

Delmonico Potatoes

Cut 5 cold potatoes into fine dice.*  Make a white sauce from 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon flour, 1 cup milk and salt and pepper to season.  Toss the potatoes in the sauce, turn into a baking dish, sprinkle the top thickly with 1/2 cup grated cheese and bake until it is a light brown.

*This recipe is about 100 years old.  If you're not into finely dicing cold potatoes just go to the frozen food aisle and buy a bag of diced potatoes!  I won't tell.  Also, I've made this recipe a few times and it would be a good idea to double the white sauce.  Baking the potatoes with the amount of white sauce called for in the recipe above is just...not good.  This is a crowd pleaser because it is pure comfort food and that is exactly what people are looking for at these types of events.  I have seen the above recipe also titled 'Sinful Potatoes' and 'Heavenly Potatoes' - take your pick.  I found this interesting link about fun food facts from this time period - take a look!

My sons learned how to dip celery in olive oil with salt and pepper from their grandfather and how to peel and eat lupini beans.  They watched him eat smelts every Christmas Eve and enjoy the vegetables he grew in his garden.  They laughed.  Life is good.  Below is a picture of my father-in-law, my husband's father and my sons' grandfather.  His name was Michael N. Rosa. He was a good man and an incredible grandfather.

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