Embracing Funeral Food

“You gotta eat.” Timothy Joseph Russert, Sr. a.k.a. “Big Russ”

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It is no secret that proper nutrition is one of the keys to good health. During times of great stress, such as facing the illness or death of someone close to us, keeping ourselves properly rested and appropriately fed can be a challenge. This can place a burden on our bodies as well as our emotions. Many of us have immune system “crashes” during such times and end up battling horrendous colds along with our grief.
While the need for nourishment is essential, finding the wherewithal to plan and produce meals for ourselves and those around us can be difficult. Long nights and endless days spent in hospital chairs or re-playing unhappy scenarios in our heads after someone has passed away can exhaust us to the core of our beings. Still, people must eat; and we need to eat “real food”—that is to say, something other than peanut butter taken from the jar with a spoon or cold Spaghetti-Os straight from the can.
Fortunately, one way that kith and kin show support and love in times of crisis is by providing food. Nowhere is that great American standby, the casserole, more fully utilized than as the go-to meal for a family struggling with a serious illness or a recent death. A casserole (also known as a “hot dish”) can be eaten when it is dropped off at the house, reheated in the oven the next day, or microwaved. Most freeze well and many can be eaten cold. Some have veggies, some hamburger, others tuna. Lots have “cream of something or other” soup. There are toppings made of potato chips, breadcrumbs, cheese. They have noodles and potatoes and rice and other friendly things that make our miserable guts settle down for a while and allow us to relax and drowse off to sleep, often for the first time in days

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In times gone by, people were laid out at home and after the public rituals of mourning and burial, everyone repaired to the house to eat and talk and grieve together. For the most part, we Americans no longer wake our dead at home; with families spreading all over the country and the common practice of Mom and Dad downsizing it is less and less common to have everyone “back to the house” and more and more common to have some sort of post-service reception at the church hall or the funeral home. Caterers can provide delightful spreads, allowing the next of kin to forego the process of cubing cheese or making sandwiches. But others have an army of family and friends to provide the food, and that really shows the regional character of mourning cuisine.
Tomato aspic tends to show up in the South; so does a tempting morsel called a  “funeral sandwich; don’t forget the funeral pie, and you’d better bring the whipped topping! Green chile stew and tamales are expected in New Mexico. Baked pasta, once a staple of Italian gatherings, is now a regular feature at many Irish Catholic post-funeral meals. Jewish families sitting shiva eat, among other things, round foods (bagels, lentils, eggs) to represent the circle of life. And what Texas household winds up without a sheet cake, for crying out loud?

There is a legendary potato dish known as “funeral potatoes” that makes a regular appearance at gatherings hosted in LDS wards across the US. There are many variations, but they all seem to feature something essential in our hour of need: the comfort of familiarity, seasoned with the love of friends.


Recipe courtesy of Mrs. Kalene Martindale Sims

5 lbs potatoes – peeled, boiled and mashed

1 8 oz package cream cheese (softened)

1/4 c. butter

1/2 c. sour cream

2 eggs (beaten)

1 t. salt

1/4 c. milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Combine all ingredients and beat until light and fluffy.

Place in greased casserole dish – 11 x 13

Refrigerate overnight.

Bake uncovered for 35 minutes. Add shredded cheese on top and bake for 10 more minutes.

Note: for more deliciousness, mix in some of your favorite things like chives, garlic powder or bacon bits.

~~Mary Gibbons

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