I started thinking about food associated with funerals because this spring was a tough one for our family.  We lost 3 relatives in 3 days, including my Mother-in-Law, my favorite Aunt (who was more like an older sister to me), and my Brother-in-Law.  What started in grief soon became an interesting path, though.  I am always fascinated when I discover the history or story behind food ingredients, delectable dishes or culinary customs.  The culinary road I ended up taking had some interesting twists and turns.  Here is the first fork in that road.

There are an amazing number of websites curated by funeral homes that deal with funeral food, especially focusing on helpful guidelines for what to do when you want to do something but are not quite sure what to do.  This makes sense, as I cannot imagine the variety of questions they get from grieving folks whose world has just been up-ended.  And there are down-times when the cremator is just sitting there.

The suggestions websites present are pretty much common sense, but here is my spin on this whole topic;

  • Think comfort food.
  • Food that can be easily heated.
  • Food that is easy to eat.
  • Finger food can be great. Oftentimes people don’t realize they are hungry until they have a taste of something.
  • Use disposable dishes so no one has to keep track of whose bowl or platter it is.
  • It is also easier to stack rectangular and square pans in the fridge.
  • Beverages are also appreciated. Especially if they don’t need to be refrigerated until they have been opened.  If in doubt, I wouldn’t offer adult beverages (although that may be the “best” thing they receive).
  • You may also want to think gluten free, dairy free and meat free (basically just serve the box other food came in). No, I am kidding.  Many folks have dietary restrictions or food sensitivities/allergies and you don’t want your lovingly-prepared gift of food to have to be discarded because of something like that.
  • Rice and vegetables with a vegetable velouté make a nice casserole. If you put some lightly-oiled and seasoned chickpea crumbs on top you could even call it a hot dish.
  • Never, ever give Ambrosia (at least to me!!! Apologies if that’s your personal favorite.)
  • The main thing is that it is the thought that counts, but simple is best.

If you are not able to make anything there are great prepared food counters out there that sell much more than deli food.  They may be a little tougher on your budget, but they make up for that with the very little time it takes to purchase them.  A gift card from a carryout restaurant or grocery store could also be nice.

I would encourage the food to be nicely seasoned.  Not too spicy but flavorful is the way I would describe it.  And perhaps don’t try out new recipes.  You also don’t need to feed everyone.  I know some dishes just tend to grow while they are being prepared, though.  You start with a little of this and a little of that and pretty soon you need a bigger dish to put it in.  That happens to me when I make potato salad.  And I have been on the receiving end of more than one massive tray of baked Ziti.

Another fork in road this culinary journey took me on is international food customs.  Food has been used to sooth the aching soul, nourish a broken heart, and express sympathy for the loss felt with the passing of a loved one for many millennia.  What people eat ranges from the Amish tradition of Raisin Pie to the American Deep South combination of Fried Chicken and Macaroni & Cheese.  Internationally, the Swedes toast the deceased with Glogg (a booze-spiked spiced wine punch).  Around the world, nearly all cultures have a custom or customs involving the giving, receiving and/or ingesting of food after there has been a death.

The most fascinating historical custom I ran across, is endocannibalism — which is the practice of cannibalism in one’s own locality or community and not out of necessity – such as eating your relatives’ body parts to preserve their spirit.  (Thank you, Wikipedia!)  Good grief.  I wonder if you could choose your preparation instead of picking out a suit and tie or a dress.  The final sauce on your chin so to speak.  That is as far as I am going to go with that.  At least here on this page.

One food custom actually made me hungry and wanting to prepare it, however.  It is the custom in parts of Utah and Idaho of preparing “Funeral Potatoes.”  What a great ring to a recipe title!  Our wonderful friends Nancy and Merla from Salt Lake City told me about this dish.  The thing is, though, I bet you could make them anytime. There may be a conundrum of using the title if you made them for a neighborhood get together or a family reunion pot luck, though.  But they may be a great side dish to go with Aunt Betty.  I mean Aunt Betty’s Sloppy Joes.  (By the way where is Uncle Joe?)  My version of Funeral Potatoes follows.  It is has gluten and dairy, but is meat free.  To quote Meatloaf, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”  (Hmmm…  They would be good with meatloaf.  I wonder if anyone offered them?)

Funeral Potatoes

4 tablespoons butter
1 cup finely-diced onion
3 cloves garlic, pasted
4 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1½ cups vegetable broth
2½ pounds russet potatoes, peeled and grated into a bowl of water
2 cups sour cream
½ pound grated cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 cups cornflakes, cracker crumbs, bread crumbs or chickpea crumbs

Method:  Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9×13 inch baking dish well. Cook the onion with the butter and garlic over medium heat until the onion has sweated, gotten soft. Add the salt, pepper and broth. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until thickened. Cool a bit. Drain the potatoes well and place them back in the bowl. Add the sour cream, grated cheddar and the cooled onion mixture. Mix well and place in the greased baking dish. Combine the chosen crumbs with the butter in a bowl. Sprinkle on top of the potatoes. Bake until hot and bubbly. Top with a little foil if the crumbs begin to darken too much. Enjoy!

Chef Joel