Death Warmed Over

Dear Helena,

I am going to my aunt’s funeral and would like to take some food for my uncle and his family. It should be a dish they could serve at the post-funeral buffet or enjoy on their own later. Casseroles are too old-fashioned. Would guacamole and chips be appropriate? If not, what do you suggest?–Casserole Hater

Dear Casserole Hater,

The bereaved are usually too distraught to worry about cooking, so it’s thoughtful to bring them food. But it should be the right sort of food. Guacamole says “fiesta,” not “funeral.”

1. Skip the perishables. The traditional Amish offering, “funeral pie,” is made with raisins instead of fresh fruit—it lasts longer. A funeral dish should be one that can sit around for a couple of days, because you don’t know when it will be served. And it’s best if your dish can be stored at room temperature, since other well-wishers may have stuffed the refrigerator with casseroles.

2. Keep it simple. The bereaved want food that soothes. Jessica Bemis Ward, the editor of Food to Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips and Tales (2004), has attended “over 400” funerals. Her advice? “Don’t bring anything too avant-garde, sophisticated, or challenging.” In other words, think mac and cheese, not molecular gastronomy.

3. Serve in portions. Funeral guests steer clear of food that requires assembly, even crudités and dip. That’s why biscuits filled with Virginia ham are a staple of Southern funeral buffets. If the fixings were served separately, few would touch them. “People feel it’s unseemly to look too interested in food,” says Ward.

4. Forget the mini-quiches. The individual portions should not be dainty. Death makes people hungry. Lisa Rogak, author of Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals & Customs from Around the World (2004), says, “At weddings, they drink more. At funerals, they eat more.”

So what should you bring? “Cheese straws are always well-received,” says Ward. She also recommends good old potato salad or deviled eggs. As for dessert, Rogak says, “Chocolate is a mood elevator.” Belgians traditionally eat black or dark food at funerals, and her book includes a recipe for a ganache-frosted Belgian funeral cake. “You can’t go wrong with chocolate,” Rojak says. Unless, of course, you bring a death-by-chocolate torte.

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