In the winter of 2007, something really terrible happened: my dad had a heart attack -- a big, bad, unexpected one. My entire family, plus a rotating army of friends and acquaintances, spent an entire week camped out in the ICU, pacing around alternating between worry, hope, resignation and abject delirium. There are entire swaths of that week that I don't remember -- whole conversations have been forgotten, gut-wrenching things have probably been repressed and the incidentals were gone almost before they'd transpired. Aside from the big, poignant, serious things that have no place in this article, what I really remember was the food.
Losing someone we know, or love, or both, is one of the few certainties we have in life. You can look at that fact as the soul-crushingly heavy weight that it definitely is, or you can vow to yourself that when it happens to someone you know, or love, or both, you will feed them really, really well. Funeral food is a tradition observed differently in different cultures, but we all have it, and for good reason.
Last year, I heard Julia Reed speak at the Southern Food Writing Conference. Reed has waxed poetic about funeral food with her own endearing and hilarious bravado before, but this time she told a story that I haven't been able to forget. Her own grandparents died in a tragic accident. When her family received the call, the motions of preparing for what would come next began immediately. As her mother rushed out the door to make arrangements, she shouted back to Reed with all the importance in the universe, "Go clean out the refrigerator."
In the American South, your refrigerator will immediately fill up with Jell-O salads, potato salads, deviled eggs, and fried chicken. In Utah, you can count on at least three versions of funeral potatoes. If your dad dies in New Mexico, like mine did, there will be tamales, enchiladas, green chile stew and a lot of tortillas. I'm betting you have a similar story from wherever you are. But what I really remember was the baked ziti.
I have no idea who made this baked ziti, or if I even knew them particularly well. Here's what I do remember: over the course of that sometimes hopeful, sometimes miserable week, it had become clear that my dad wasn't going to make it. Instead of having some great epiphany about life, love and loss, what registered first in my brain was that I would need to call my boss to let her know that I wouldn't be back to work that week. I excused myself from the swarming army of loved ones to make the call. As I talked through this surreal experience on the phone, I found a counter covered in recently delivered food. I slid the metric ton of it over to make room, and sat there until that conversation -- one of the strangest I've ever had in my life -- was over. At the end of it, I realized that I'd been digging my fingers into a banquet-sized tray of cold baked ziti, eating one noodle at a time for nearly the entire conversation. I didn't think I was hungry. I didn't think I should be hungry. But there it was -- the dent I'd put in it and the sense that I'd eaten something that I really, really needed.
Over the next few days, I ate that baked ziti for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between. I don't know if anyone else got any of it. But anytime someone who I know or love loses someone, that is the dish I'm inclined to make.
When you set out to make your own batch of funeral food for someone else, there are a few things to keep in mind. It should be able to stand up to a few re-heatings -- this stuff is rarely eaten when it's fresh and hot out of the oven. More likely, someone will dig their fingers into it while they're sitting on the floor next to the refrigerator. It should maybe be able to be frozen -- these people who you love are about to get a lot of food, and having something that they can take out of the freezer in two weeks for dinner will mean more to them than you can ever realize. Above all, it should be comforting, delicious and generally not give a shit about being on a diet. Diets can come later. This is a time for baked ziti.
If you and yours have a particular funeral food tradition, let us know about it in the comments. If not, here are a few ideas to get you started.