I didn’t fully understand what it meant to “eat your feelings” until my mother died last year. Words are woefully inadequate when dealing with death, whether you’re trying to express your own grief or offer sympathy to someone hurting after a loss. So people kept me fed. A plate with a grilled cheese and a side of salt-and-vinegar chips would appear beside me as I wept writing my eulogy. Friends arrived with brown paper grocery bags full of treats from a fancy deli: yogurt, cheese, chocolate, hummus. A helpful, practical act, but also a loving reminder that I was not alone.
Recipes and rituals may vary, but in different cultures and countries around the world, from America to Mexico to Italy to Vietnam, there are notable parallels in the way we grieve with food that transcend language, culture, religion and geography.
Grief calls for rich, hearty comfort food ― and lots of it.
In the U.S., casseroles and lasagnas are thought of as the go-to dishes to take to a wake or to someone who is grieving, although differences exist based on region, religion and ethnic background. In the Jewish tradition, during the seven-day mourning period immediately following a death known as sitting shiva, it’s common knowledge one should bring crowd-pleasing food that is easily shared and requires little preparation by the host, such as bagels, candy, nuts, cookies and cakes.
In America’s South, famous for its hearty, decadent cuisine, funeral food differs among states and cultural backgrounds, but there are some traditional staples, according to Kathleen Purvis, food editor at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
“Fried chicken, chicken salad, a casserole called ‘hot chicken salad,’ homemade deviled eggs, small sandwiches with the crusts cut off. In the African-American community, baked macaroni-and-cheese is vitally important,” Purvis told HuffPost.
“Also, potato salad is common. And rolls: Everyone brings rolls and cold cuts, to make sandwiches. Desserts tend to be pies, like lemon meringue, or chess bars, an old-fashioned sweet, creamy cookie bar with a cake-like bottom crust.”
In Italy, giving bread is a popular choice, said Danielle Callegari, a lecturer in Italian studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
This is for several reasons: Carbs are comforting, a loaf feeds many people and, in a largely Roman Catholic country, it represents a spiritual link between life and death.
“Regional differences abound, however,” Callegari said. “For example, in Naples, it’s traditional to bring coffee and sugar. Sweets are also very common.”