Starve a fever, feed a cold. So goes the conventional wisdom, but what's on the menu for a wounded heart?
Post-funeral meal rituals vary wildly - not just from pole to pole and faith to faith, but from mourner to mourner. Some families decamp to a restaurant, too overwhelmed to tidy a house or light a stove. Some can barely wend their way through their kitchen for all the foil-covered dishes borne over by neighbors doing what they can to fill the suddenly hollow space in a once-full home.
Others gather around coffee urns and cookie plates in church basements and V.F.W. halls and some simply sidle off quietly, too shaken and broken to imagine they'll ever have the strength to eat again.
The lay crowd was small - just family and a few faculty members. Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts houses Father Bill's order, but the bulk of his teaching and Catholic ministry had been at King's College in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. So there were no grieving parishioners bearing covered potluck dishes of funeral potatoes, raisin-studded funeral pies, hard boiled eggs or sheet cakes.
After the burial, we wended our saddened way to a common area of the priests' residence for a communal meal. Father Moody, a priest who my uncle had mentored over the course of several decades, stopped me for a moment outside. "I know you're a food editor, so this probably won't be up to your usual standards, but we've done the best we can."
"Nononononono...don't worry." I promised. "I am grateful for everything you've done today. Fanciness of food is the very last thing I'm worried about today."
That's true on a day of grief, or any day, for that matter - especially if someone is kind enough to cook for me. It surely would not have ruffled Father Bill. He was a gentle man who enjoyed an occasional cold beer, but allowed himself almost nothing else in the way of creature comforts. He took his order's vow of poverty to heart. Meals out with him were to diners and pancake houses and ended with a battle to grab the check - and he'd never ever let me win.
Father Moody led me inside, where my family and many of the priests had already gathered around circular wooden tables and were eating, solemnly. He showed me the lay of the land - a buffet of cold cuts and sandwich makings, a salad bar, a cart full of fresh fruit and cookies, and a bowl of iced soft drinks. He gestured to the lone chafing dish on the table. "And that's American chop suey."
I'd never heard it called that before, but it looked for all the world to me to be the beefaroni I'd grown up eating at my family's table. It's not pretty, elegant or fancy stuff - just ground beef, elbow macaroni and tomato sauce cooked together in a skillet or a casserole dish. I'd been too sad to eat that morning, and suddenly, I was ravenous. I put some on my plate and sat down with my family.
Moments before, it had seemed wrong to do something so life affirming and self indulgent as eating - especially something at all delicious - while Father Bill had suffered for so long and would never sit down to a meal again. Penance was clearly in order, enough plain water and bread to keep breathing and walking, but nothing else.
But someone had clearly made this dish - stood at the stove and cooked this comforting food, knowing that some grieving people would need to eat. I took a forkful.
It was humble, delicious and solid and tasted as if it were made with love. Father Bill would have approved. I cleaned my plate.
In your family or community, do people have a post-funeral food ritual? Please share it in the comments below.
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