Mourning Food

I attended a visitation and funeral this week and it made me think a lot about the tradition of sending food over for the family of the deceased. Based on my personal experience (I have, at this point, very few close living relatives), I believe that the practice arose out from ensuring that the family eats decent food during the initial time of mourning. When a loved one passes, there’s a lot of work to do and preparing a large meal or even going out to dinner can be a very daunting task.

As such, guidelines for funeral food seem to be:
• “Comfort” food (i.e., tastes good but isn’t good for you) and typically homemade.
• Food that can be eaten hot or cold or is easy to re-heat.
• Food that will usually keep for at least a week or so.
• Food that can be eaten easily and quickly.

You also take the food to the member of the family you’re closest to unless they request otherwise. And if there’s a daytime visitation at a funeral home that has a kitchen area, it’s a nice idea to take some food there as well, particularly for long visitations. Friends and relatives brought food to the funeral home for my grandmother’s visitation and I remember being very grateful. There’s little time to think about eating and it’s nice to have a good excuse to take a break for a little while to eat some pimiento cheese sandwiches and homemade cookies.

A lot of funeral food isn’t very vegetarian-friendly and is even less so when you live in the south as I do. This week, I saw the staples of sliced ham (which fits all of the above criteria), roast beef, and chicken spaghetti. Several people brought dishes of vegetables, but as is de rigeur in the south, the green beans were seasoned with ham. Luckily for me, there was creamed corn and my favorite, lima beans. I can eat my weight in beans. And desserts! There was pie, cake, fruit salad, and more. One dessert item I recognized immediately from its wonderful smell. Dump Cake. It looks like cobbler, but the crust is actually cake mix. It’s an easy dessert and very delicious.

Dump Cake
Ingredients:
• 1 box cake mix
• 2 cans pie filling
• 1 (or 1-1/2) stick of butter

Dump the pie filling in a 9 x 13 pan, sprinkle the cake mix evenly over the top. Cover cake mix thin slices of butter (the more completely you cover the cake mix, the more uniform the “crust” will look). Bake for one hour (until brown) at 350. The original version I had was cherry with white cake mix. The one we had Wednesday was peach with white. I’ve also made it with apple pie filling and mixed cinnamon and pecans into the cake mix (very good) and used chocolate cake mix with cherry pie filling. Use your favorite filling and favorite cake mix–there’s really no way to go wrong.

But the big surprise I saw was Ritz Pineapple Casserole, a dish my cousin, Teri makes for every family gathering (she’s also known for her peppermint bark). It’s essentially a mix of pineapple, shredded cheddar cheese, and crumbled Ritz crackers. It doesn’t sound good, but it is. And it doesn’t really sound all that unhealthy and fattening, but it most certainly is.

Ritz Pineapple Casserole
Ingredients:
• 2 20 ounce cans of chunk or tidbit pineapple, drained
• 1/2 cup flour
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
• 1 sleeve of Ritz crackers, crushed
• 1 stick of butter

Place pineapple in a 9 x 13 or comparable baking dish. Mix together flour and sugar and sprinkle over the pineapple. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese on top and then add the layer of crackers on top of that. Slice the butter and place evenly over the layer of crackers (does not need to cover the crackers completely). Bake at 325 for about 20 minutes. Baked longer if you prefer the cheese to be very melted, but Teri’s casserole usually has the shredded cheddar still pretty much intact. Can be served hot or cold.

I used to eat tons of that casserole every time we had a family gathering until I found out what all was in it. It’s not exactly low-calorie. But it is comfort food, which apparently is defined as having a high sugar, carbohydrate, and fat content. Ah, why must food that is bad for you taste so good?

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