Of the many occasions in life when the phrase “comfort food” seems most appropriate, funerals are at the top of the list. Food can serve myriad purposes as part of the mourning process: It can come in the form of help to family members, as the community provides meals that free up the family from having to worry about cooking; to honor the deceased with some of their favorites; to feed the mourners who support the bereaved; and to allow people who want to help do something constructive.
Growing up in a Scandinavian-Lutheran community in northern Minnesota, I attended many funerals where the funeral reception offered what’s become a Minnesota tradition: Little ham sandwiches on dollar buns, potato salad heavy on the mayo, Jello salads, lemon bars, cake, and cookies. One could try to draw an evolutionary line from the grand tradition of Scandinavian smørrebrød to those dry ham sandwiches, but it would be a depressing exploration.
Yet not all Scandinavian Lutheran funerals involve these; Pastor Anne Brit Aasland of Minneapolis’ Mindekirken Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church noted that she recently had a request for Nordic waffles at a memorial service reception.
But the fabric of Minnesota is woven with many more cultures than just Scandanavian heritage. So what do the different cultural groups that have settled into the Upper Midwest traditionally serve for funerals and memorial gatherings?
There are all kinds of foods showing up at funeral and memorial gatherings, many of which have roots in more ancient traditions. What’s more, even within a culture, there are variations from funeral to funeral. And there’s no better place to start than with indigenous people of the region: the Ojibwe. Wendy Makoons Geniusz, who is Cree and Metis as well as an associate professor of the Ojibwe language at UW-Eau Claire, and her husband Errol Geniusz, who is an MA in History and Ojibwe from the Sokaogon and Chicaugon bands, described the place of food at Ojibwe funerals.
“Feasting is a really important part of Ojibwe funerals,” says Wendy. “There are different kinds of funerals. We have different religions: Midewiwin, Big Drum, Christian, and those who follow Ojibwe cultural protocols. But feasting is important to all.”
Feasting is a necessary part of the funeral, as Ojibwe funerals can go anywhere from one to four days, with feasts throughout. As for how the length is determined, Wendy says, “The religion does determine it, but different communities do things differently as well so it’s not just the religion. There are Ojibwe people buried as Lutherans and Catholics and they could follow that [traditional Lutheran or Catholic] half-day time, but we haven’t seen a lot of half-day funerals. We have seen funerals that mix Christian and Ojibwe traditions, and those can last multiple days. If there is no mixing of religions, an Ojibwe funeral tends to last four days.”
As for the foods often seen, several traditional items are wild rice (manoomin), deer meat, smoked fish, and potatoes, as well as the Three Sisters: corn, squash, and beans. “Fry bread is present if the communities cook it, otherwise it could be bannock,” says Errol. “People expect it if it’s part of the community and get upset if it’s not there. People cling to the older parts of our culture in funerals.” Also, maple sugar is a sacred food to the Ojibwe. “Some funerals have sugar water made with maple sugar,” he says. “That’s very sacred. Everyone has to drink from it.”
How these ingredients are used depends on the cook. “There could be five or six wild rice dishes, some simple with Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and others like wild rice with cranberries and nuts,” Errol says. “But if there was a special dish that the deceased really liked, that will be there too, even if it’s not traditional.” He laughs, adding, ”My aunt made a really great spaghetti. If I’d gone before she did, that would have been at my funeral.”
Food is prepared not just for the living. “Because our funerals are meant to see the deceased off to the other side, we prepare a plate for the deceased with just a small speck, an inch of food and put it outside near a tree for the deceased to take as they depart,” says Wendy. “If there’s sugar water at the funeral, a little of that will be put by the plate.” The departed is also the first to be served.
But food that’s not consumed at the funeral is important too. “It can’t be wasted,” Wendy explains. “Either people take some food home with them at the end, or it can be added to the [ceremonial] fire, but it can’t be thrown out.”
Amal Mohamed, the communications and marketing manager at The Somali Museum of Minnesota, talked about Somali traditions. “A funeral is a three-day process,” she says. “The body needs to be buried as soon as possible after death, so everyone goes to the mosque to pray, then the body is buried at the graveyard. Then everyone goes to the home of the family. A lot of people come, for three days. They pay respects and bring food. There are more prayers and well wishes.”
As to what foods appear in those three days, it varies. “It’s customary to have tea,” Amal says. “Somalis need to have tea at any occasion! There are a lot of sweets. There’s lots of rice, pasta, so guests can enjoy food while they visit.”
Abdirahman Hassan, also from The Somali Museum of Minnesota, has a different experience with Somali funerals. “Prayers and remembrance take precedence over worldly things,” he says. “But there are snacks for the visitors, things like popcorn and dates.” Still, one thing is constant. “And tea. Tea is the number one beverage in our community.”
The small but growing Guatemalan community in Minnesota has its own traditions, rooted in its Mayan culture with Spanish influence. Amalia Moreno-Damgaard is an immigrant from Guatemala who has been here since 1981, is the author of an award-winning, best-selling Guatemalan cookbook, and consults and educates with organizations about the nuances of Latin American culture.
“When people die, the dead person’s body is never left alone,” she says. “The wake begins right away and goes all night and until the body is buried. People come and go, but the body is never left alone at any stage. The family prepares food for the people who are taking turns at the vigil. Usually, it’s tamales, hot chocolate, cookies, and breads.”
But funerals aren’t the only time Guatemalans celebrate departed loved ones. As in many other parts of Latin America, Día de los Muertos, celebrated on November 1 and 2, is a huge celebration of life that’s truly a celebration, not a time to grieve.
“In Guatemala, it’s celebrated with a special dish only made for that day: Fiambre,” says Amalia. “Fiambre has anywhere from 45–60 ingredients. It’s a cold one-meal dish, like a salad. Rojo Fiambre has beets, Blanco Fiambre is beetless, and Verde Fiambre is more greens.”
Making Fiambre is a community event. “The family pitches in,” says Amalia. “It takes two days. It starts with a base of pickled slaw, with olives, cabbage, carrots, green beans, onions. We use the juices from all these ingredients to make the vinaigrette. First day, we do the pickles and vegetables. There’s a lot of chopping, slicing. We also use different kinds of chorizo, seafood, tuna, shrimp, and chicken. This is strictly a Guatemalan dish. In Spanish, ‘Fiambre’ just means ‘cold meats.’ But for Guatemalans, on the Day of the Dead, it’s the only dish, and it’s only made once a year. People look forward to eating this.”
A quick history search indicates this dish may have developed as people prepared and carried various foods to the cemetery and eventually began to share efforts, making one massive dish rather than dozens of smaller ones.
“When making Fiambre, people, mostly women, congregate around the table, wearing aprons, using knives to slice and dice, talking about boyfriends and children and teasing each other,” says Amalia. “That’s what bonding is. Cooking is a bonding mechanism.”
“Bonding” of course suggests mourners supporting mourners, but when it comes to funeral food, it takes on another meaning—culinary rituals help bridge the gap between the deceased and the people who cherish their memory.