Death Warmed Over:
Funeral Food, Customs and Rituals from Around the World
by Lisa Rogak
Ten Speed Press, June 2004
Paperback, 176 pages
There’s a stiff at the table. Well, a lot of them really, most of them dressed in ties or pearls and looking pretty elegant for a bunch of folks absorbed in conversation with a naked skeleton. And that’s just the cover of Death Warmed Over by Lisa Rogak, whose intent is to show us examples of how some of the many peoples of the world “use food in conjunction with death in ritualistic, symbolic and even nutritious ways.”
Why do the dead inspire eating among the living? Does consuming something dead somehow balance the loss of something else, whether actual or metaphorical, in those of us who are still alive? Does that sorrowful vacancy find its way from our hearts and minds to settle achingly in our gizzards? That we humans are universally consumed with death, and then of course eventually by it, few could disagree. The entire process of life in all its forms may basically be an alimentary one, wherein the food eaters become the food themselves in the end.
Rogak takes an interesting back road into this reality by looking at the varieties of food we use to mourn or celebrate death. Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World, as her subtitle puts it, where we encounter such dishes as breaded seal flippers, which should be marinated for two weeks in “fresh” blubber for a proper Eskimo send-off. Inuits are apparently patient mourners.
The format of the book includes a page describing the funeral customs of a certain culture with a facing a page that gives a recipe for a dish appropriate to each ceremony. Rogak’s writing is light and most of the preparations appear reasonably simple to concoct. Among them:
- Tibetan Sweet People Cookies, made with Gummy Bears
- Balinese Black Rice Pudding, which allegedly must be formed into a human shape before serving
- Tlingit fish soup, calling for a 10-ounce package of “frozen” spinach
- “Buddha’s Delight," allegedly Chinese, which requires two types of fungus, two types of mushrooms, and two types of bean curd, as well as both bamboo shoots and bamboo piths
- Mormon frog eye salad (no frog parts required)
As a retired homicide detective with a habit of raising questions around the dead, I couldn’t help noticing that many of the recipes provided by Rogak call for the significant pre-heating of ovens, even for dishes traditionally served by the Mongolians, the Maori, the Gypsies, the Etruscans of ancient Italy, and Colonial Americans. I had a difficult time imagining Jenn-Aires in yurts, huts, caravans, or in any cliff-side embattlements of any era. The recipe for Irish Wake Cake, for example, calls for the batter to go into an oven after being vigorously addressed by an electric mixer. Ireland has a disturbing, varied, and complex history, which has left it with a largely plain and downright dull culinary aspect. There are some prosperous quarters in modern Ireland where such appliances may, in fact, be found and perhaps even used. However, there remains the legacy in Ireland of the Famine and the Hunger of history, which, like other cultures fancified here, may find this assumption less than amusing.
Where and when I grew up, the ethnic mix included Irish, Polish, and Italian, largely, with a burgeoning abundance of cross-breeding, but not much otherwise. The food at the wakes and funerals in that community at that time accordingly involved dry beef, bad sausages, runny cabbages, overcooked starches, and thick white bread. There was a little variety among the booze: jugs of sweet red wine and bottles of high-test vodka. Everyone drank the insipid American beer, mostly from poorly chilled cans or bottles.
The authenticity of these rituals and customs mattered to very few of them. These immigrants largely knew that they were no longer in any real sense a part of the culture and history they had left. With each death they mourned, they knew that they and their children and their children’s families were all moving steadily away from where they’d come. Maybe through the “spirits,” some were better able to come to comfort with such a painful loss and an uncertain future.
Currently, at wakes and after the funerals I attend, I see an abundance of Chinese food. It’s catered to homes, served in huge antiseptic halls, or even smuggled along with whiskey into the basement rooms of funeral homes reserved for the grieving families, also still called “lounges.” Little of it is authentic to any time or place except here and now. Egg rolls, weak soup, egg foo young, noodles and/or rice with some mysterious “chicken” parts and a maybe little celery. And corn starch. That’s OK anyway. It’s inauthentic, too. It’s comfort food we eat as we’re stopping by to say, “So long!” to the stiff there. Hey, are you going to finish that?
March 21, 2012