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.
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.
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.