My sweet aunt passed away last week, with the funeral held this past Monday at my childhood church. Like at every proper Texas funeral, there was a spread of food laid out afterward that would rival any church potluck supper. The gorging that commences after a funeral is both cathartic and comforting: If you're shoving your face full of lemon bars and chicken salad sandwiches, you don't have to talk to anyone about what just happened.
The practice of feasting after a funeral dates back to funerals themselves. The two practices have been almost inextricably tied to one another since ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman times, and likely go back even further in history than that. In West African villages, cattle and poultry are slaughtered and feasted on to commemorate the dead after they've been buried. The Jewish custom of Seudat Havra'ah is probably the most straightforward about the true intent of a post-funeral meal: Translated, it means "meal of consolation," a meal which is prepared for the mourners by their community.
Preparing food for a funeral, or taking it to a family in mourning, is just as ancient a custom as funeral feasts. Although some people take solace in cooking, most grieving families can't fathom a life without their loved ones, much less what to put on the table for dinner. In Ethiopia, edirs -- communal funeral societies -- are as common as neighborhood watch groups. When a member of the community passes away, the other members of the edir help pay for the funeral, take care of any young children and -- of course -- cook food for the family.
But what do you take to a family in mourning?
In a City Beat article entitled "Funeral Food," Lora Arduser talks about the traditions of mourning meals across the country:
Different ethnic groups and regions have specific dishes that constantly show up at funerals. The Amish prepare a funeral pie with raisins. In the South, fried chicken and macaroni and cheese make many appearances. Funeral Potatoes, a cheesy hash browns casserole, is so ubiquitous in Utah that they are called Mormon Potatoes, too. In Wisconsin you might still see Jell-O salads, potato salads, relish trays and meat and cheese sandwich trays.
Here in Texas, we have our own ideas of comfort food. These are some of the most common items you'll see at any post-funeral luncheon, as well as dishes which you can easily make and take to a grieving friend's house in their time of need:
5. Sheet Cake: A good, old-fashioned Texas sheet cake with a thick layer of chocolate frosting and pecans will fortify even the saddest constitution. It's only a temporary fix, of course. But you can help stave off the tears for a little bit -- especially with the kiddos -- with a dessert that's a hybrid of brownies and Grandma's chocolate cake.
4. Chicken & Spaghetti: Another dish designed to feed the little ones while the parents tend to more important issues, chicken and spaghetti like Mom used to make can also provide the same feeling of comfort to those grownups too. Casseroles are quick and easy to throw together, and you likely already have the ingredients on hand for this one.
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3. King Ranch Chicken Casserole: Like the chicken and spaghetti, this classic casserole will feed a family for at least a couple of days, as well as providing the same basic level of comfort as a dish of macaroni and cheese but with a little protein thrown in for good measure. As a bonus, this casserole freezes incredibly well.
2. Baked beans and brisket: Nothing says, "You've been in my thoughts" like a brisket that you smoked for six hours. Add a side of baked beans to make it a meal. Both the brisket and the beans can be eaten over the course of many days, and the brisket will make excellent sandwiches for the kids. (Yes, you can buy one if you don't have a smoker; we won't judge you.)
1. Potato salad and a Honeybaked ham: If you're sincerely East Texan, as I am, you can also make a pea salad (athough this might not be as universally appreciated). The Honeybaked ham is quick to grab from the store and can be used for many applications, from sandwiches to hot dinners to casseroles, and the potato (or pea) salad will keep for days and only get better with time. (Until it spoils; kinda goes without saying, doesn't it?)
What foods do you typically bring to loved ones? What foods do you seek solace in after a funeral service? Leave your own suggestions and traditions in the comments section below.