Wednesday, August 10, 2005

COM: Dying to Eat

He Would've Wanted Everyone to Eat
By ABE OPINCAR, August 10, 2005, The New York Times

VERTAMAE GROSVENOR said she always wondered why she and her relatives ate so much after funerals.

"Even people on diets just ate plate after plate," Ms. Grosvenor, a cultural correspondent for National Public Radio, said about postfuneral meals in South Carolina, where she grew up. "My theory was, we ate so much because that's how we knew we were alive."

Funeral meals have always meant to assuage grief and to honor the dead and their beliefs about the hereafter. In America these meals also reflect ethnicity, health trends, state law and contemporary funeral practices.

But feeding the grieving also has a fundamental aim, said Dr. Holly Prigerson, a bereavement specialist.

"You can't be noshing when something's chasing you," said Dr. Prigerson, director of research at the Center for Psycho-Oncology and Palliative Care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School. She said C. S. Lewis was right when he wrote, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear."

She continued: "Grief triggers the fight-or-flight mechanism. Your body's in a state of alarm. It's like something's chasing you. When grieving people say they don't feel like eating, that's because the body is prioritizing for survival.

"Postfuneral meals, the food brought by family and neighbors, offer emotional support. But we do these things also out of a basic human sense that people who have survived the death of someone they love are going to need nourishment. They've been depleted by caregiving and bereavement. Grieving people must eat."

So, friends take chicken, brisket, cakes and homemade cookies to the homes of grieving relatives. In many states they take food to the funeral home. But not in New York.

LaVone Hazell, a family therapist who trains clergy in bereavement support and advocacy, quotes the New York state law prohibiting the "preparation, sale, service, or distribution of food or beverages in any part of a funeral establishment to or by friends, relatives, mourners, family, visitors or next of kin of any deceased person."

Ms. Hazell said: "I've wanted to run a funeral home since I was 6 years old, but not in New York. The food issue upsets me."

At the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service on West 54th Street, Ms. Hazell tries to instill a sense of cultural awareness in her lectures on grief psychology.

"Funeral meals, like the African-American repast, are so important to so many ethnic and religious communities, I could never run a funeral home that didn't accommodate them," she said.

It is an imperative that Joseph Becker understands.

"Recently we had a lovely funeral dinner," Mr. Becker said. "Catered. About $20 per person. Beautiful china and linen. Fancy folded napkins. Sculpted butter. A fabulous display of hors d'oeuvres. Chicken on a skewer with a nice Greek dressing. Stuffed mushroom caps. Little Reuben sandwiches. It was better than most wedding dinners I've been to."

Mr. Becker owns Becker Ritter Funeral Homes of Brookfield, Wis. He is best known in the funeral industry as a pioneer in the use of video technology in memorial services. In 1997 he added a 1,500-square-foot dining hall to Becker Ritter, complete with an antique fireplace and fountain.

"Because of the growth in cremations, there's no need to go to the cemetery," he said. "I started looking down the road at the future. I wanted to offer something of value to the people we serve. Our community is mostly German, Irish and Polish. Serving food after a funeral is a very good and needed part of our clients' traditions.

"We work with the families and caterers to create a meal that reflects the person being remembered. We've done a replica of an English high tea, for example. We had a German oompah band the other day in the dining room. That was a baked chicken dinner with parsley boiled potatoes, green beans and relish trays. For a Norwegian lady we did everything in the colors of the Norwegian flag. Swedish meatballs were on the menu."

Sometimes the signs of ethnicity are subtler. Gayden Metcalfe, co-author of "Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral" (Hyperion, 2005), said white and black Southerners take different approaches to the funeral meal.

"The African-American community does repasts beautifully," she said. "They take the time to prepare wonderful food. We white Southerners kind of do it all in a rush. That's why our funeral foods are dishes like casseroles and Jell-O salads. Things you can put together real fast with ingredients you have on hand. I think that's why my mother always had a casserole in the freezer, just to have something ready in case someone died."

The funeral meal's most influential designer is religion, but there is room for flexibility.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar said that in his 36 years of being a rabbi, he has noted changes in the food that friends and relatives take to mourners during shiva, the traditional seven-day period of mourning.

"Nowadays people are more health-conscious," said Rabbi Lipskar of the Shul, a Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Bal Harbour, Fla. "You're getting a lot more vegetable trays with dips and less of the fried, fatty foods you used to see in the past."

He said that there were no rules for the food brought during shiva, but that Jewish law dictated the contents of the seudat havra'ah, or the meal that first-degree relatives of the deceased must eat immediately after the funeral.

"We trace it back to the lentils prepared by Jacob," he said. "Abraham, Jacob's grandfather, had died. Jacob was preparing the postfuneral meal, seudat havra'ah, for his father, Isaac. To this day, lentils are part of that postfuneral meal. Lentils and hardboiled eggs. Round things that symbolize life's cyclical nature."

Hindus also use specific foods as markers of the different stages of mourning. Pandit Krishna Samudrala, spiritual leader of Malibu Hindu Temple in Calabasas, Calif., said desserts had a prominent place in the Hindu postfuneral meal.

"For the first 12 days the deceased's first-degree relatives are ritually impure," he said. "On the 13th day relatives and friends are invited to a vegetarian meal in which no garlic or onion are used. In India we would hire a cook to come and prepare this meal. But in Los Angeles these cooks can't be found, so family and friends help out.

"It's a meal of curry and sambar, and of three traditional desserts: appam, a rice-flour pancake; and vada, which is a kind of doughnut; and payasam, which is a rice pudding. Throughout India these dishes may be prepared a little differently, but the desserts are important because they have a special meaning for us. Sweets mean that people are carrying on with their lives."

Pandit Krishna's wife, Srimathi, garnishes her payasam with cardamom powder, a little saffron mixed in milk and cashews fried in clarified butter.

"But the pudding's real flavor should come from the milk," she said. "You can use either condensed milk or fresh whole milk. Both give a good result. It's not very difficult to make. You just have to pay careful attention so that it doesn't burn."

Imam Mateen Siddiqui, vice president of the Supreme Islamic Council of America in Fenton, Mich., said that each Muslim country had its own tradition for funeral meals.

"You'll usually find lamb, rice, bread," he said. "The idea is that the meal is a form of charity for the friends and relatives who've come to the funeral. The blessing from that charity goes to the deceased. The more that guests eat and fill themselves, the more of a blessing goes to him."

When Neal Abunab, a Palestinian filmmaker, thinks of Muslim funeral meals, he thinks of one dish, mansaf.

"You can make mansaf for any festive occasion, but it's always served after funerals," said Mr. Abunab, a Dearborn, Mich., resident who came to this country in 1979 when he was 16. "It's a way of cooking lamb in a sauce made with dried yogurt. The Palestinian way is to also add leben, which is like buttermilk. My mom's secret is to add a tiny bit of kusbara, or cilantro, to the sauce. My mom makes a mean mansaf.

"On the mansaf plate, a big stainless steel tray, you put some flatbread and on top of that a layer of rice with some almonds and pine nuts fried in olive oil, and then the lamb. The idea is that you're eating communally. The idea is to eat a lot of mansaf."

Those in the funeral industry know that generous meals are a part of the business.

William Caldwell, supervisor of limousine drivers for March Funeral Home in Baltimore, the largest black-owned funeral home in the country, said he had been invited to hundreds and hundreds of repasts.

"Fried chicken, string beans, ham, potato salad, pig tails cooked with sauerkraut," he said, listing the dishes he is usually served. "For dessert, chocolate sheet cake, sweet potato pie and apple pie. It's good eating."

He, too, has noticed changes.

"Folks always have the basics, but they've been adding things like crab cakes, chitlins, seafood salads and pigs' feet," he said. "There's a greater variety now of what you eat at a repast."

In the South Carolina Lowcountry, where Vertamae Grosvenor grew up, repasts were marked by culinary tension.

"The repast was when you showed off," she said. "Maybe you didn't bring your best to a party, but to a repast you did."

And because Lowcountry is rice country, she continued, "you show off with your rice dishes."

She remembered the ones served after her mother's funeral 10 years ago.

"We had pans and pans of rice fixed every kind of way," she said. "Plain rice to go next to your greens. Red rice with smoked sausage. Chicken purloo. Hoppin' John. Limpin' Susan. Aunt Georgianne brought a big pan of her seasoned rice. It was wonderful, but I still don't know what she had it in. I know it had black pepper.

"People judged your worth by how well you made rice. If your rice wasn't proper, my God."

She added with a laugh, "Gummy rice wasn't only unfit for a living person, it was unacceptable for a dead man."