The ham was flaccid. The scalloped potatoes were eerily yellowed by margarine, and the green beans, lukewarm and watery, were straight from the can. The bread was store-bought.
Tammie was 54, but in the coffin she looked elderly, her hair thin, her red cardigan cheap, worn, pilling. Was that really the nicest thing she owned? Tammie was angry in death, her jaw clenched and her fingers curled like the claws of a cat.
In life, Tammie had reason to be angry but rarely was. At least not until those final years. Tammie had been a teen runaway, a teen addict, a teen mom. Yet she had also been bold and optimistic and ridiculously so, in her poofy satin maid-of-honor gown, with her Colgate smile and Farrah-Fawcett hair, fresh and beautiful and full of hope.
Tammie was my cousin. She drank herself to death, inching each day toward the exit after the accidental overdose of her daughter, who’d been duped by years of prescription opioids for knee pain. The mediocre funeral food at Tammie’s wake, I reasoned, was just another nail. Throughout Tammie’s life, people pointed fingers, found fault. In her childhood home, Tammie heard she was worthless. In her church, Tammie heard she was a sinner. Careless errors of heartbreaking excess pockmarked even her obituary, her age wrong, names misspelled. Tammie had learned to expect mediocrity from the universe. Why would the food at her funeral be otherwise?
The gathering, a smattering of family and friends, had followed a brief service and a hurried prayer at the grave. Both the funeral home and the graveyard had back-to-back functions. The day was still, close, and the summer sun was merciless, bouncing off our cars as we waited, our backs damp, as Tammie’s mother and sister hobbled to the plot, the mother leaning on her cane, the sister tethered to an oxygen tank. The boyish minister who gave the eulogy knew nothing of Tammie’s truth. He had met her just days before while she languished on her deathbed. He had prayed for her liver to hold and was desperate for her to regain consciousness long enough for him to save her soul. At the funeral, he had remained desperate, asking God for forgiveness retroactively.
After the service, the family lingered, piling ham on their plates, relieved. The buffet was set up in a small enclosed pavilion behind the church, cinder block walls, gravel floor, picnic tables. The pavilion is a place for Bible school, youth parties, children’s Halloween events safe from razor blades. In the pavilion, I felt a chill and wished for a sweater.
In the corner, desserts awaited on a small table. The cakes, also store-bought, were sticky-sweet. Powdered artificial creamer was available for the coffee, which was tepid and weak. The pies were not homemade either, but managed to elicit acclaim. “I never heard of apple-raisin pie,” someone said. Which reminded someone else of a story she had heard on the news, a bear that ransacked a bakery and ate all the pies except for the rhubarb. Everyone laughed. No one likes rhubarb pie anymore.
I returned to church—and the neighborhoods of my childhood—a year later, in 2016, mourning the death of my Aunt Edna, an elderly woman with a lifelong devotion to her faith, someone who had many friends and colleagues who could cook, each presumably with a box full of recipes on index cards, From the Kitchen of. After that funeral, I met the same flaccid ham, those same eerie potatoes. Two weeks later, the precise meal was served again, when Edna’s sister Louise died. Three different churches. Three same meals.
The genius of these streamlined funeral dinners, as explained to me by a minister, is twofold. Who has time for a funeral potluck? In this system, the church ladies are on alert, hams always in the freezer. The dinner fees, paid by the bereaved family, bring in extra cash for the parsonage.
At Louise’s funeral, which also fell in August, someone had thought to raid her garden. Between the tired green beans and the weary ham sat a platter of sliced tomatoes, ripe, fresh, warm from the sun. Louise had been 88, but she still tilled her soil. At Louise’s funeral, I slid as many tomato slices onto my plate as I deemed polite. I secured a salt shaker and began to dine, dribbling juice on my chin as I had done as a child, grateful that my dead aunt had thought enough to take care of me.
St. John’s United Methodist Church—a faded clapboard church with a stone foundation and a less-than-imposing steeple—sits atop a small rolling hill in a tiny but sprawling Western Pennsylvania township, population 2,000, give or take. The small hill is deceiving; stand a certain way and you feel atop the world, with no dizziness, the blue sky cracking open like an invitation to glory. The folks in the cemetery must be grateful for the view. The town was founded in 1820; like the other towns in the county, it is a farming town, a mining town, a Pennsylvania Dutch town. A few miles away, near a different church, is where nine trapped coal miners were rescued after more than three days. Afterward, and even still, the heroics of the rescuers and the perseverance of the trapped miners was the news, not the safety risks glossed over by the mine owners. In these neighborhoods, risk is hardly news; everyone knows someone dead from the mines.
On Sundays, St. John’s Church is nearly empty. Are there fifteen people? Twenty? My mother keeps track. She could get the official numbers; I don’t bother to ask. The church is surrounded by neglected land, grassy acres that once fed cattle, weed-choked gardens where tomatoes once ripened and zucchini teemed, a dormant potato field.
When Tammie’s grandmother—my grandmother—died at age 55, she looked young in the coffin, despite the disfiguring injuries of her traffic accident. In 1972, our funeral food was different. Homemade. Raisin-filled cookies. Chocolate cake. Chicken pot pie, which is not really a pie but a soup. Glazed ham and buttered noodles. Apple dumplings. Fresh potato salad. Cole slaw. Summer fruit pies, raspberry, blueberry, elderberry, with crusts made of lard. Homemade bread. Our grandmother had known how to bake bread and so did her friends. When our grandmother died, we ate well. We laughed. Our hearts broke.
Today, few people bake bread. Many people in this part of Pennsylvania shop for groceries at Dollar General. They buy hot dogs two for $1 at the gas station.
In thinking about funerals and the rituals of funerals, I especially remember the story relayed to me by a friend following the death of his grandmother. Hannah Lewis Jones of Snow Hill, North Carolina, was famous for her sweet potato pie and her molasses pudding. If you were in the hospital, she showed up with baked goods—something for now, something for later. If you called her, she likely would be busy, whipping something up. “I’m in the kitchen right now,” she would say. “So-and-so passed.”
When Hannah Lewis Jones died in 2013, the St. Peter Free Will Baptist Church was standing room only, everybody in town, at least 100 people.
Her grandson, Chef Jesse Jones, can’t give you directions to the church. “There’s no signs; they just know. If you’re from out of town, you’d be in trouble. I wonder how the navigator works down there.”
For the homegoing of Hannah Lewis Jones, who was 92 when she passed, there was fried chicken and baked chicken. A whole hog, smoked in vinegar. Pound cake. Chocolate cake. Sweet tea.
“You know in the South they do it big,” said Jones. “Make sure you got your soul right.”
Jesse Jones is as much a storyteller as he is a chef, and he punctuates his sentences, both written and verbal, with exclamation points. POW! Dream Big!
At Hannah’s home, Jones said, food was dropped off for days. “People just making sure you’re OK.”
“Real food?” I was dubious.
“Real food,” he assured me. Pans of cornbread. Green beans. Buttermilk biscuits. From the heart.
Jones, featured in “Toques in Black” (The Chefs Connection, 2019) and author of POW! My Life in 40 Feasts (Outskirts Press, 2017) has made it his life’s work to carry on the traditions of his grandmother. He marries the techniques of his French culinary training to her humble soul food—from trout mignonette to slow-and-low barbecue, from double chocolate soufflé to hummingbird layer cake.
Hannah Lewis Jones was an April Fool’s baby; for her birthday each year Jones makes a molasses cake. He never got her recipe for molasses pudding. “She took it to her grave.” But the molasses cake comes close, and one taste returns him to North Carolina. “Like those tomatoes,” he tells me. “You’ll never forget the taste of those funeral tomatoes.” I tell Jones about my dead father, and the dinner I prepare on his birthday. How, as a child, my father had loved buckwheat pancakes and sausage and maple syrup. How, the year after he died, I drove to four grocery stores to find the right buckwheat flour, the right syrup, real sausage. How I spent $35 at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s so I could replicate the humble supper of a farm boy who grew up in a home without electricity or running water, whose father tapped maple trees for syrup and hunted deer for venison sausage. “Daddy’s shaking his head at me every year,” I tell Jones. “He’d say I was too damn smart for my own good.” Chef Jesse Jones and I could talk forever about lard and molasses and dead people. We laugh at ourselves, a catch in each of our throats. We are anachronisms.
I met Jones in New Jersey, where we both live. New Jersey is diverse and densely populated, offering an abundance of dining tables and opportunities to gather information. We eat well in New Jersey—thanks to our historically fertile soil, our proximity to the sea, and generations of immigrants and the restaurants they open. Living here, we are introduced to the cuisines of the world at community suppers and block parties. Port Newark-Elizabeth, the largest on the East Coast, ensures we have access to ingredients fresh from around the globe. In my experience, America does not revere New Jersey as a culinary destination, but as a longtime food writer, editor, and restaurant critic, I have witnessed otherwise. New Jersey is a state full of hustle and brio; our cooks and our chefs are competitive. My work requires many conversations with chefs, and in my years of discussions with Chef Jones about Southern food and the proper way to roast a rabbit, the lack of Black chefs in the restaurant business, and teenage sons and basketball, he has become a friend.
When his uncle died in 2019, Jones stayed in the kitchen, cooking for hundreds who came to the funeral in Newark. He made fried chicken and collard greens and his Aunt Ella Mae’s potato salad, a favorite of the deceased. Jones was glad for the responsibility. “I’m not big on seeing people lying in the casket,” he said. One secret to Ella Mae’s potato salad is Duke’s Mayonnaise, a product created in Greenville, South Carolina, more than a century ago. Jones also uses red and green peppers, and a particular kind of pickle that he will not disclose. But another secret lies in the potatoes themselves; chefs know the quirks of potatoes, which so easily become a starchy, gummy mess. Jones brings his professional training to the process, beginning with potatoes of uniform dice, and he prepares the potato salad a day in advance, so the ingredients marry. After the Newark funeral, family members clamored for take-home boxes of potato salad, which Jones, who believes funeral food should be an homage to the deceased and who had a complicated relationship with his uncle, found satisfying.
Otherwise in New Jersey, Jones tells me, people die and someone drops off chicken from Costco or a weird container of rice pudding from Shop-Rite. It’s not the same as in the South. Yet others from the South tell me that even there the homegoing food traditions are waning.
In my own New Jersey neighborhood, a young widow requested Clif bars from her friends, so she and her girls could grab something as they ran to work and school. Another friend took pounds of lobster to a wake, to liven up the same old fare and because lobster was favored by the deceased. After the wake, my friend caught one of the cousins trying to sneak off with doggie bags of lobster, as if being a cousin gave him the right to steal food from the bereaved. Then again, my friend shrugged, the deceased was known for exactly the same type of stealing. Another family I know, direct from Sicily, hosts funeral dinners at Italian restaurants in strip malls, though the matriarchs keep it real by bringing in trays of homemade cookies. A neighbor, also from a Sicilian family, proudly makes his grandmother’s manicotti at Christmas, a three-day process, rich and balanced and alabaster smooth. The manicotti are worth the effort at the holidays, he says, but would be too cumbersome to make on the fly for a funeral. A friend whose family is from Oklahoma tells me a story about sisters and mothers and laughter and tears amid the tombstones—and about a funeral celebration featuring a treasured family recipe for a fluffy and ethereal coconut cake. The story is so poignant that I wish to be part of her family, willingly glossing over the dysfunction of her father’s basement apocalypse bunker filled with Spam and Twinkies. A colleague from Brooklyn, comforting a Minnesota family after a friend’s death by suicide, was so offended by the cut-rate vapidity of the dropped-off casseroles that he cleared the fridge while everyone slept and spent three days shopping and cooking in what he viewed as a redemptive attempt to nurture.
For those at a loss in the kitchen, help abounds. Comfort food needn’t be complex, the experts remind us, offering recipes for Funeral Potatoes or Slow Cooker Chicken. The website for Matthew Funeral Home on Staten Island shares constructive advice on funeral food, reminding us of the basics—recommending that we begin with fresh ingredients and that we choose dishes easily frozen and reheated. And for those without access to the church ladies of Western Pennsylvania, outsourcing is a few clicks away. SendaMeal offers a sympathy package (flowers not included) for less than $100; choices include bacon-wrapped chicken breasts, fajita meal kits, shepherd’s pie. In Colorado, an online delivery service promotes sympathy meals and condolence dinners, and Spoonful of Comfort, a Utah-based company, sends care packages of sympathy soup, with rolls and cookies. In the matter of outsourcing, the folks at Matthew Funeral Home come through again with practical advice, reminding us that we can simply call a local caterer, and noting, in this understatement, “A family, however broken, can find some comfort in a warm meal and full bellies.”
We blame the pandemic for short-changing our death rituals, yet I wonder if it only accelerated the process. I have been asking people about their funeral foods for years, wondering if our streamlined repast is a symptom or a cause. America, reckless and cheap and disposable, failing to nurture in death and in life. America, the consumer and the consumed. Yet who am I to place blame? I too come to funerals with nothing, not even a pan of Jell-O.
After Tammie’s funeral, after the ham and the potatoes and the store-bought cake, we stood together outside the church pavilion, empty still. We lingered awkwardly. We hugged. Many of us hadn’t seen each other in years. We hobbled in our dress shoes up the uneven grassy path to our cars, calling out, without irony, “Don’t be a stranger.”
After my mother-in-law’s funeral, I ate a tepid crabcake served over limp lettuce at a small luncheon get-together in Pittsburgh. My mother-in-law died in September 2020. I accuse Covid, though others insist otherwise, as if I implied leprosy. At my mother-in-law’s funeral, the adults argued about masks and the grandchildren did not hug. I was desperate to leave.
A few weeks later, we were invited by friends, a couple we’d known for decades, to their home in Philadelphia. We discussed logistics in advance—masks, social distancing, a table on the porch. My friend Mary traveled to the farmers’ market and sought ingredients. She polished the silver and cleaned her home. Her Bolognese sauce simmered all day; an online recipe that had become her go-to comfort food during lockdown. As we dined, she gently asked my husband about his mother, listening intently to his stories—his mother’s trip to New York City, his father’s military service. She made a quiet statement: “The loss is unique when the second parent dies.” She poured a glass of Villa Amoroso, a Nero d’Avola bold enough for Bolognese but one with unexpected clarity and elegance, and she laughed when my husband said his Irish mother was forever trying to compare him to John Kennedy Jr. Her dinner was a gift, and on the long ride home I thought of the French philosopher Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.”
My curiosity about funeral food seemed less weird in Ireland, where I realized, following a reading at a writing conference by author Billy O’Callaghan—who writes often of death and ghosts—that the relationship here between living and dead is more fluid. In Ireland, noisy otherworldly spirits share your hotel room. Thick, ancient gravestones have been cleaved open by delicate splays of pink blossoms. The Irish wake contributes to an attitude of afterlife conviviality—the coffin in the home, the body in repose, the living and the dead getting comfortable with each other. But even the Irish wake is no longer de rigueur—ten days have dwindled to one day, and city folks have given it up entirely.
Kinsale, Ireland, dangles like a dare out in the sea, boasting a unique address—World’s End, a geographic truth to Europeans who knew nothing of America. Kinsale is a port; through the centuries, its waters ran crimson with blood on numerous occasions, through numerous battles. Kinsale is where the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, prompting the United States to get involved in World War I. In Kinsale, ghosts abound, and many are historically significant.
Yet the White Lady remains the ghost story I remember, the ghost story I can’t forget, a tale from the 1700s of a bride who died on her wedding day. The ceremony took place at Fort Charles, a massive and fierce star-shaped military fortress along the coast in County Cork, built during the reign of King Charles II. The bride was the daughter of the fort commander; the groom was an officer. As the story goes, the newlyweds were strolling along the parapets when the bride spotted a single white flower amid the rocks below and asked her groom to fetch it. The groom obliged, but asked a sentry to do the actual work of scrambling down the ramparts. The groom and the sentry switched uniforms, and the sentry, seizing the opportunity, disappeared forever. The groom, awaiting a flower that would never arrive and a little tipsy from the festivities of the day, dozed off. The fort commander, coming upon a sentry asleep at his post, shot him on the spot. The bride, realizing her father had shot her husband to death, hurled herself from the battlements.
If you go to Fort Charles, they’ll show you pictures of the White Lady—the ghost, not the bride—taken by other tourists. The White Lady continues to haunt the citizens of Kinsale; sometimes she is blamed for pushing people down a flight of stairs.
The story of the White Lady of Kinsale gives me vertigo, the spinning layers of vanity, the tragedies of character, the centuries of despair and regret. The vertigo is exaggerated when standing on the parapets of Fort Charles, looking upon the sea and into the beyond, imagining that each vessel on the horizon carries a bitter enemy.
The Bullman Bar is a picturesque pub down the hill, a warm-hearted respite following the hike to Fort Charles. The pub serves fat, briny, local oysters and smoked wild salmon. In August, when the sun is good-natured and the sea is patient and the raw winds of winter are a distant memory, it’s easy to talk about ghosts and funerals and death, even with a new acquaintance. Kate Ryan writes about food in County Cork. Over a perfect Irish lunch, I gushed to Ryan about my perfect Irish breakfast, which was served on Staffordshire china at the historic Perryville House, but which was more rustic than formal, with distinct local cheeses, hearty local granola, and a bowl of intense strawberries from a farm in nearby Rosscarbery. Ryan, in turn, gushed about that Rosscarbery farm, run by the Bushby family, famous for the intensity of its strawberries, hand-picked and hand-sorted, but also famous for its flowers. Indeed, Ryan wistfully expressed regret that she was already married; it would be especially grand to have Bushby flowers at her wedding.
Then it struck her. We plan our weddings, why not plan our funerals? Who wants to shuffle off with a crappy shepherd’s pie made with frozen peas? Why not champagne? And chocolate fondue? And oysters—why not oysters? We laughed. Two women, not elderly, planning our funerals at the end of the world in Ireland.
Our nervy laughter, already frail, abandoned us, clattering empty to the floor. Suddenly I felt bereft, but also precarious, then greedy as a bride. I want champagne at my funeral too. Because what if no one bakes bread when I die? Or simmers Bolognese? Or brings a plate of stolen tomatoes? Or bakes an ethereal coconut cake? Or makes Ella Mae’s potato salad? And if there are children at my funeral, let them drink champagne. That pop of the cork, potent. That effervescence. Until everyone is warm and dizzy and has a headache. Until hearts can properly break and friends can laugh. Until everyone remembers to be alive.