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.”
Rich foods to comfort in a time of need are also the case in Mexico, as Kristin Norget, associate professor of anthropology at McGill University in Montreal and author of Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca, found while living and researching among traditional communities in the state of Oaxaca.
In the immediate aftermath of a death, a community gathers for nine days of mourning, the novenario. They eat soup, tamales and mole, a complex and rich sauce made with different ingredients depending on the region.
“Mole is so complex, fatty, savory or sweet, depending on the kind,” Norget said. “That sense of richness for many people is associated with being satisfied and comforted, going back to childhood. Mole is the definition of comfort food.”
It’s about more than just the food.
I was deeply grateful to friends who, after I lost my mom, sent me gift cards for meal delivery services. I could treat myself to whatever I wanted to eat, whenever. But the act of taking food to a person’s doorstep offers an excuse for a face-to-face visit ― to check up on them, offer a hug, help with a task that needs doing or just be there.
“Food is a crucial element of social interaction in Italy, so bringing food or going to someone’s house to cook for them is very common after a death,” Callegari said.
Italians will typically have a large communal meal after a funeral, Callegari said, an opportunity for people to support one another and remember the person who died.
In traditional communities in Oaxaca, as Norget explained, relatives, friends and community gather around the family for the novenario.
“The main purpose is an expression of solidarity and caring,” Norget said, adding that the preparation and serving of the soup, tamales and mole, as well as coffee, chocolate, tea and a variety of other foods, is central to the event.
The act of bringing a meal to someone’s home in a baking dish or plastic container can have an added bonus of support, as Purvis pointed out.
“It might be more of a small-town or Southern thing, but there’s an unspoken rule that the person who has lost someone will begin to return the dishes as a sign they’re ready to re-enter normal life, so to speak, after the funeral.”
Some cultures remember previously lost loved ones with food.
Once the wake is over and we’re expected to return to normal life, many of us only openly grieve those we’ve lost on the anniversary of their death or their birthday.
That’s not the case in Italy, where the country annually celebrates All Souls’ Day (Ognissanti) on Nov. 1 and 2, a time of remembrance when, as the tradition goes, the souls of those who have passed on are believed to return to visit their loved ones, so families prepare offerings for them.
“On All Souls’ Day, sweets are typical, but they’re defined by regional differences,” Callegari said.
“Cookies in the shape of bones (ossa dei morti) are popular and appear in a variety of local recipes. In Sicily, people make beautiful frutta di martorana (marzipan fruits).”
All Souls’ Day shares similarities with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico, held Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 every year. A celebration rather than a sad or mournful affair, many people take food to eat by the graves of loved ones and set up altars in their homes with the favorite foods of those being remembered.
“The idea is to use foods the loved one enjoyed when they were alive,” Norget said.
“It’s a way to make space and time for grieving, and not to erase or ignore death but to hold it up and look at it from all sides.”
Not shying away from death and dedicating significant time to grieving is also the way in Vietnam, a predominantly Buddhist country with specific mourning traditions.
Ngô Thanh Nhàn, a visiting fellow at Temple University’s Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society in Philadelphia, said that after a loved one is laid to rest, for 49 days the family goes to the burial site to leave offerings, typically rice.
The 100th day after a person has died also holds special importance.
“The whole family visits the resting place together and then shares a meal,” Nhàn said. “It depends on the family and the city or region, but it might be bun bo,” a spicy, aromatic broth with vermicelli noodles, beef and herbs, including lemongrass.
“This day is tot khoc or ‘end of tears.’ It means we don’t have to be sad anymore.”