Monday, 27 October 2008

Food for the living

Note: I began this post on a Monday, but didn't finish it until November 2 -- the official Day of the Dead.

Not long ago, Just a Plane Ride Away and I were talking (on blog and off) about the Day of the Dead. Now I like holiday-themed food as much as anyone, and perhaps even more than most, but I've always been slightly creeped out by the thought of pan de muerto. Although I've happily consumed several gingerbread bats and pumpkins this weekend, something about a skull just puts me off.

As the natural world decays around us, (at least in the northern hemisphere), it seems appropriate to participate in all of those night-time festivals (Halloween, All Soul's Day, Guy Fawkes Night) which feature skeletons and ghosts and rubbish-burning. Of course, they are trivialized by the mass consumption of candy, not to mention plastic costumes, but there is still a spooky hush, a trace of darkness, about these ceremonies. Dancing around with the idea of death is preferable to confronting it in any real way. There's nothing like a controlled, fake encounter to keep something scary at a remove. Afterwards, you get to come back inside -- to light and warmth -- and eat a baked potato, or count your sweets.

One of the reasons that I am discomfited by the Day of the Dead is that it happens in daylight. Honoring the dead is one thing, but inviting them to a picnic is quite another. Perhaps it is rather too revealing of my own religious beliefs, but I believe that food is for the living. I don't think that the dead need tequila, but living souls might.

During the first week of our half-term holiday, a friend's father died. Even though he had been ill for a while, it was -- as it always is --a shock. There was a sleepless night; a frantic day of making decisions and arrangements; and an inability to tend to everyday matters. As bad luck and late October would have it, the weather was correspondingly grim: dark, wet, windy and cold. After offering my vague assistance, as you do, I decided to focus on something practical: providing dinner. I put together the most comforting, warming menu I could think of: meatball stew, homemade bread and butterscotch brownies. Eat it now; heat it up later; freeze it until needed.

I don't ascribe supernatural powers to food, but I do believe that it is an offering of love, of caring, of healing. I couldn't help but notice, when reading The Believers, that Audrey -- the monstrous mother -- had a withholding nature when it came to food and love both. The last conscious transaction Audrey has with her husband involves a bialy: he has asked her to get him one, but she has neglected to do so. In another scene, her daughter Karla describes a legendary meal in which Audrey takes some canned spaghetti, slices it up, and serves it cold. (The gruesomeness of this meal will probably stick in my mind long after other details from the novel have faded.) A friend brings Audrey some homemade chicken soup, but she leaves it to spoil on the stove. Audrey doesn't know how to give comfort; she has trouble receiving it, too.

Now I know that you don't need to make a casserole to show caring, but somehow it just seems to help. No one wants to think about cooking when they are tired and heartbroken, but the living body still needs to eat. It's nice to have some chicken spaghetti, beloved dish of Texas mourners, handy.

My mother and I like to talk about what we've been cooking lately, and when I mentioned my menu for grieving friends she wanted to know if it was typical for English people to bring food following a death. I realized that I didn't know. So far, I've been lucky enough to escape close contact with death. However, you do get to a point in life where death becomes a more or less constant feature . . . and I think that I'm nearing that point.

I know it is sheer denial to repress thoughts of death, and perhaps Day of the Dead mourners have the right attitude -- even if I don't care for the skeleton and marigold aesthetics. But if the practice ever comes to England, I think it would be best to bring a flask of something hot. November graves are cold places, and even if the dead can't appreciate a nice cup of tea or some warming soup, the living will.

Meatball Stew

This is a recipe that has been in my family for ages. My mother included it in a cookbook that she made for me when I got married. I often make it for Halloween, but it is good for any occasion which requires warming and nourishing loved ones. It can be made ahead, and like most stews, is actually better the next day.

Make small (3/4 inch) meatballs out of the following:
1 1/2 lb ground chuck (or good mince)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
3/4 cups seasoned bread crumbs

Or, if you live in England, just buy the Organic meatballs from Waitrose -- they are ideal.

Saute one clove of garlic in a small amount of olive oil. Remove garlic and brown the meatballs in the flavored oil.
Place the meatballs in a casserole dish with a lid (I use my Le Creuset) that is burner/oven proof.

Add the following:
16 oz tomato sauce/passata
32 oz water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf
1-2 beef boullion cubes, or a couple of teaspoons of Marmite

Cover and cook on top of low heat for 30 minutes. Then place in an oven at 325 for 30 minutes. After this two-part process, you can add the following vegetables:

1 1/2 cup cubed potatoes
1 1/2 cups sliced carrots
1 cup sliced celery
1 cup chopped onions

Cook in oven until vegetables are tender. Approximately 45 minutes should do it.
Serve with french bread or corn bread.

Butterscotch Brownies

From the New York Cookbook; slightly modified by me. These are deliciously chewy and moreish. After I made some for my friends, my children complained until I made another batch. I gave one to a man who was cutting some trees for us that day, and he actually asked for the recipe!

3 oz, or a heaping half-cup, of all-purpose ("plain") flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 oz butter (or vegetable shortening, which the original recipe calls for)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Butter and lightly flour an 8 inch square pan. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat, and then add the brown sugar. Mix thoroughly, and then remove from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes.
Quickly stir in the egg, until glossy, and then add the flour mixture, followed by the vanilla, nuts and chocolate chips. When everything has been incorporated, press the mixture into the prepared pan.
Bake for approximately 25-30 minutes. A toothpick should come out clean, but the brownies will be soft until they cool. After cooling, they will still be chewy.


Debski Beat said...


I'll be brief but will revisit later. I am a strong believer in the comfort of food. Somewhere about the the age of 10/12-ish, I decided that the one thing one needs to have to survive is food, therefore it might as well be enjoyed. As the decades have passed I have come to realise that other matters are important as well but a good soup/stew/ roast etc helps.

Culturally, I discovered, when I lived in the Caribbean that providing food for the multitudes that descend on a bereaved family is considered helpful and is appreciated and shows support for the family. I think tho' that in the UK it might be regarded as an intrusion unless specifically invited as grief is more private and personal, a thought process I subscribe to.

I am really interested to hear what others think on this matter as it has always caused me to plunge into dilemma.

Elizabeth said...

Your menu for comfort food was indeed comforting.
Excellent choices.
After my father's funeral we had the most wonderful tea. The best thing were the chocolate cookies/biscuits with thumb prints in to put real chocolate.
When my husband had a hideous accident and was in the ICU for ages the greatest comfort was getting all the homemade food when I simply couldn't cope.I remember exactly who stepped up to the plate - often not who you expect.
Yes,yes, yes. Bring lots of food to the bereaved, distressed.

Kate said...

I agree with Elizabeth. When my father died I cannot tell you the names of all who attended his service, but I can remember with perfect clarity who brought what. With tenderness I recall how the physical education teacher at my middle school brought over a gigantic aluminum tub filled with smoked meats and baked potatoes. A good friend sent a tray of assorted brownies; another, a casserole of ham and cheese.
For me, food has always been linked with comfort.
Thanks for a magical posting, Bee. I intend to make your meatball stew in the coming days. I'll let you know what my family says!

Brave Sir Robin said...

Oh Bee,

You know, I have a chicken Spaghetti in the oven right this minute.

I must say I am curious to read The Believers, after reading the synopsis just now. Audrey sounds like quite the harpy to me.

To me, food is the language of love. To me, what better way to show how much you live someone than to give them their very sustenance?

I had wanted to do a Day of the Dead post, and reality intruded and I didn't get to.

Oh, and the Meatball stew sounds wonderful.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Love the title of the post. I think it's so true about using food to comfort and I wish that I loved cooking more so that I could use it more for that purpose. You're such a great friend for feeding her in such a time. I know when I'm in that sort of state the last thing I want to be thinking about is how to feed me and my family.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

I made a huge pot of chicken and vegetable soup yesterday--I've been sick since Friday! Interestingly, I craved your wheat bread and made that on Saturday. There is something very satisfying and comforting about that particular recipe.

I make a meatball soup similar to yours! How nice that your mother put together a cookbook for you when you got married. I am going to make those brownies for Roxi this afternoon... only I will have to sub butterscotch chips as that is all I have on hand.

So glad you're back :-)

Bee said...

Debski -- In this case, the friend had kept in touch with me all day -- so I knew that she hadn't had time to think of dinner. (She has two young children. Also, she hates to cook under the best of circumstances.) What was considered to be good "grieving" food in the Caribbean?

Elizabeth -- I love the idea of a glorious tea after a funeral. When you are sad and tired and the blood sugar is correspondingly low, sweet things are so satisfying. About your husband's accident: when I was recently reading Joan Didion, she mentioned a special chicken soup that a friend regularly brought to her after her husband died. Apparently it was one of the only things she could eat.

Kate -- I remember my mother telling me how surprised/touched she was by the food brought after her own mother died. I felt touched just thinking about that P.E. teacher bringing over all of that smoked meat to you. (I guess that's true comfort food for Kansas Citian? We ate BBQ after my grandfather's funeral.) Please do let me know how your family likes the meatball stew. It is savory without being spicy -- which some people don't like.

BSR - I had to get the chicken spaghetti in! My mom almost always had a foil-covered one in the freezer (for emergencies). Meatball stew would be perfect for your needs -- especially if you get some wintry weather. I love the fact that it is a meat, potatoes and veg meal that you can make ahead and just heat up.
Re: The Believers. There are all sorts of interesting food details in it. The eternal student part of me tends to notice these things.

Alyson -- You know, even though I love to cook there are some times when it seems like the most terrible chore. (And I love it when people feed me!) You should try the brownies; they are "dead" easy.

JAPRA -- I'm sorry to hear you've been sick, but I'm glad that you have some good soup and bread to see you through. I wish that I had some of that soup right now! (No doubt that the Meatball Stew has circulated in church cookbooks and Junior League cookbooks.) I bet the brownies are great with butterscotch chips. Let me know!

Cindy said...

Those recipes sound very comforting. I have always found when you feel there is nothing you can do, a good meal is the perfect thing to offer. The recipients will feel the love the home cooking brings and it's always so annoying after a full day to have to figure out what is there to eat.

Brave Sir Robin said...

I forgot to weigh in on the "to bring food or not" debate.

Where I live, it is just what one does. I would never in a million years occur to me not to do so, but I always wondered if it was universal, or just a Southern thing.

Oh, and the bread was a big, big hit! So easy, so good.

Lucy said...

These essays around food really do deserve a book, you know!

What was that Egyptian based book that didn't win the Booker a few years back? It was good, and I've forgotten its name, 'The Map of Love', perhaps? I'll look it up. Anyway, the Egyptian woman narrator who had lived long in England says at one point that she shall never understand how the English mourn, in effect that they don't, there are no recognised guides or customs, and that it's a terrible thing.

The bringing of food seems to be something people are beginning to do, but it isn't a properly recognised custom, so one would never be sure if it would be accepted if not invited. I think it must surely be welcome, and it is also something people can do to show they are and are thinking of the bereaved, when confronted by that 'I don't know waht to say or do' feeling.

I always remember the food moments, good or bad, in novels too!

Debski Beat said...

PLEASE may someone post a recipe for chicken spaghetti, it sounds great , is it like turkey terrazzini ?

Grieving food Bee in T&T depended on the griever, when the mother of a good mutual friend of ours died given that there were teen grandchildren I provided troughs of lasagne. When a sailing buddy of my husband died suddenly I just cooked whole meals for his widow as her family is so so massive that I saw it as the best way. Funerals as you know could go to hundreds so a few biscuits were never enough, it had to be food en-masse.

I think it is just at the so aptly named 'what to do' stage that you just do what comes naturally to do the best. For some it is providing food, for some a shoulder, for some to provide space (it doesn't mean the person does not care), it is what makes us all different I suppose.

The Bearded One and I are planning troughs of food tomorrow for those who are prepared to celebrate whatever the result of the U.S election is, so food that night will be celebratory or sad for someone, but food is a common thread that binds dont you think?

Try and find Bee, a book called Near A Thousand Tables (A History of Food) it is written by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and is one of the best I have on the subject.

Anne said...

This all sounds delicious. And I second debski beat's request for the chicken spaghetti recipe (it sounds like something I would enjoy). I might modify my original dinner plans to make this meatball soup for dinner. It's a cool, grey, possibly rainy day, and I'm very much in the mood for some quality comfort food. Meatball soup sounds like just the thing. If I hadn't made a loaf of applesauce spice bread last night, I would make the butterscotch brownies, too!

I was taught growing up that one brings food when someone has suffered a loss, or is going through some sort of a hard time (like a loved one in hospital). For me, food is inextricably linked with comfort and love.

Audrey said...

I'll try and restore some foodie 'cred to Audrey's everywhere: I've eaten nothing BUT chicken soup for the past week. Made it from scratch, boiled up the chicken with celery, onion, baye leaf and thyme. Sauteed the vegetables seperately (onions, celery and carrots 'natch) in butter, added egg noodles et voila! Having been too ill to pick up my little one from school last week, a friend kindly did me the favour. When she walked in I said "oh I'm making chicken soup. That's what my people do." She laughed and said that was true. She meant American "people" and I meant Jews. Oh well. Same diff'.

Bee said...

Cindy - I do think that food can transmit the love!

BSR - There seems to be a call for a good chicken spaghetti recipe! Would you be interested in posting your? ('Cause then I get to see it, too.) If you don't, I will post my mother's. Mine never tastes as good as hers always did, but sometimes that's the way with truly nostalgic food.

Lucy - Well, if any book editor has some money on his/her hands, I would be happy to oblige. (Somehow, I get the feeling it's a crowded field.)

I have The Map of Love -- just one of the many on my to-read shelf. Mourning rituals are fascinating to me.

Debski -- Ah, lasagne. Surely one of the greatest comfort foods. As to your "en masse" catering comment, it reminded me of how Trinis would "mass" for any occasion. I had to get used to catering for the adults at children's birthday parties!

Will read Near a Thousand Tables asap.

Anne - You're not familiar with chicken spaghetti? I wonder if it's a Texas thing. It's so funny how certain things can just seem ubiquitous -- and one never realizes that they are actually regional and culturally specific.

Audrey - I did feel kind of bad that the "monstrous Mother" shared your name! I'm glad that you've been liberally imbibing some "Jewish penicillin."

Nimble said...

Hi Bee, I used to be very interested in Mexican sugar skulls that are decorated with foil, frosting, etc. for Dia de los Muertos. Having a raging sweet tooth I thought they would be good to eat. But I was disappointed to be told that they’re just for decoration. I guess I was hoping they were actually a cooked candy but it sounds like they’re just molded sugar made to keep their shape a long time. I was thinking of the pulque and tequila offered to Mexican spirits, and the malt liquor offered to gangsta ghosts. Taking a slantwise jump I suppose the British folks should pour tea on the graves of their beloved dead. The idea makes me laugh anyway.