Food binds us together.
As published in The Lake County Bloom.
We are on a streak of illness and death in our lives. It is said such unpleasantness comes in threes. If so, we’d be grateful to be done with such things for a bit. Even in this struggle and sadness, I am always struck by the role food plays at these times.
There is a woman I have only come to know recently via social media. Frankly, I don’t know her from Adam except that according to her posts, she is a lover of art, wine, and food, and her husband just unexpectedly died. She was away on a business trip and he up and died! I was hit by this news even at such a distance. As we so often do, comparing it to our lives. “How could someone my age lose their spouse? That can’t be possible. We are all of us, so young.” As said, I know next to nothing about this woman and can only think of one thing to offer…food. Could we bring her dinner or several dinners we’d freeze for her? Would she need some casseroles or pasta salads for when grieving family and friends would arrive? What about sweets for the painful hours of dawn? Of course, it just comes out, “Can we bring you some food?” It falls out of my mouth, seemingly by default. It feels like a stupid question, but it's all I’ve got. The only hope being it somehow, even in a tiny way, eases her pain, her mind, or her heart.
A dear friend has cancer. She was never long on fat cells and is now dangerously thin. Food delivery to her is not an option as she is hundreds of miles away. Also, she is blessed with a husband who is an outstanding home cook, and I’m more than sure, is making her every fattening dish he can produce just about every hour of the day. But there is only so much a very thin person, who has always been a bit weight-phobic, can eat at a sitting. So I sent her some “infused” chocolates, mints and drink mix. Perhaps, I thought at the end of each meal, she could have a bit of chocolate or a cookie and maybe induce some hunger for a snack in an hour or so. If she can’t eat more, eat more often, is my premise. Stuff her pie hole with pie or potato chips or absolutely anything that appeals to her. Bess was worried that I’d get in trouble due to shipping. I said, “So they are going to try to go after one old woman for sending a weed chocolate bar to another old woman with cancer? Bring it on; I’ll take that to court any day!”
Bess’s mother recently passed. There are many Greek traditions when it comes to the dead, many of those having to do with food. Unlike the bacchanalia of food that Italian Catholics indulge in after a funeral, the Greek Orthodox Church dictates a spartan meal of baked or boiled fish, rice, and salad with feta cheese; of course, it can’t be entirely void of taste after all. It is an anomaly in the Greek world where food is almost as important as suffering…but not quite. Now as sparse as this meal may be, it is also tradition to bring great quantities of delicious food to the surviving spouse or family members for at least a week, maybe two, as they are thought to be in mourning and unable to cook. This is when the dolmas and the diples arrive, the pastitsio and the casseroles with helopitas and trachanas. These folks have hot dishes down to a yummy science, and they arrive, arranged and scheduled by an unknown Greek Lady in the ether, about every four hours during the day. Forty days after the death comes the Stamped Bread, of water, yeast, flour, and salt – never eggs or dairy – for the service communion. Bess’s Mom and Dad, both gone now, had a stamp and made the bread for many a service over the years. Following the service, for what is called the “Coffee Hour” in the church hall, they serve Kollyva, a mounded salad of boiled bulgur or farro wheat, walnuts, sesame seeds, currants, golden raisins, pomegranate, cinnamon and varying other spices, dusted with powdered sugar and adorned with a cross laid in almonds. Yes, it is somewhat bitter and still meager, but the added sugar begs us to recall there is still sweetness in life.
Food holds us in times when nothing else is right. We bring our traditions to that food, and we bestow our food thoughts and wishes on those we feel are in need. We seek and need its comfort. It is both our gift and our solace. In a few days, we’ll have Kollyva in this house, and we will remember.