Studying the Connections in Carbs, Casseroles and Grief
“Food evokes memories, and it reminds us where we come from. Food is a sensory experience that helps create community, nourish our bodies, and brings us life,” Baylor University associate professor Candi Cann writes.
When the death studies scholar thinks back on her childhood, she remembers her late mother’s “love on a plate” – her mom picking up special treats from the Stein bakery in Dallas for sleepovers and special holiday weekends, goodies like “cheese pockets” and “cinnamon crispies.” She thinks of the “cheese dainties” (small cheesecakes) and “chocolate crinkle” cookies that her mom baked and stuffed in the fridge and cookie jar and the Amish bread she’d send to college.
“My mom loved people through food, and one of the ways we communicated was through recipes, trading recipes, and cooking. It was an easy and uncomplicated way of being with each other, I guess? When I became an adult and moved away from home she gifted me with a recipe book filled with my favorite things that she made so I would know how to make them myself. I feel like in the digital age, this might not be so common anymore,” Cann tells Solace.
Cann dedicated her book “Dying to Eat” to her mother who died in 1997, explaining that “food was her language of love” and her inspiration. “I miss you,” she wrote, “and I thank you for all those meals, snacks and desserts you made to show how much you loved us,” she wrote.
Cann has studied how across cultures, food has brought grieving people together for thousands of years to share stories and a meal joined in community together. Cann says she’s especially interested in how the food and narrative are woven together in these rituals. “Food is a story on a plate,” Cann told Solace.
“When people die, the survivors try to make sense of lives and deaths, give them meaning … and interpret the value of a life. Meals are … the story we want to tell with food,” Cann writes, explaining that “eating is not only a sensory experience but a shared social and ritual space.”
She shared more thoughts on food, death and grief with Solace Cremation.
‘Food is a gift’
Cann says eating can bring us in touch with each other and our senses and can bring out our gratitude to those who helped create it.
“It gets you off of your phone. I think food also takes you outside of your everyday day. You’re not going someplace. You’re not working. You’re not meeting a deadline. In an ideal world, you need to give attention to what you are consuming,” Cann explains.
“Food is a gift. You can think about all the work that went into planting this plant and the sun and the water and the people that nourished it and then harvested it and brought it to you and then prepared some bread out of it and then the people who milked the cows. There’s a lot that goes into food. So I love taking the opportunity to center your attention on that. I think it takes us out of the everyday and forces us to commune with each other that way. That’s what I like about food. It is also a way to pause from our busy schedules and spend time together and tell stories. It’s also cultural,” she said.
Feasting in community
Part of the function of eating together after a death is to try and figure out the “new order,” Cann says.
“There is a real sense in which the deceased is gone or missing and the community has to come together and try and figure out the relationships between each other. Community feasting is also a functional way of providing support to the bereaved. There are a lot of religious traditions that also don’t allow for the preparation of food or that say you shouldn’t be concerned with the preparation of food and that the community is expected to come together to provide that food.”
Cann finds some interesting commonality among many of the foods we associate with grief, death and religion — like bread, sweets and wine — foods that are transformed by fermentation and leavening, just as we are transformed by life, death and grief.
When words fail
Often people gather after a formal funeral for a less formal opportunity to eat and talk together. Cann explains this is when real stories may emerge.
“I feel like it is less focused on the person but gives you permission to tell stories that aren’t ‘sugarcoated.’ When you eat, it is less formal. You are just telling stories of the times or moments you had with this person.”
“Because we eat every day, and eat multiple times a day, there’s a familiarity of the exercise of eating that lets us let our guard down that we might not have in a ritualistic space like a funeral.”
“The irony is that a lot of time after a funeral, no one is hungry. But it is such a common exercise, it is such a familiar comfort in the fact that we do it so often, that I think that the routine of eating might be comforting as well. It helps us feel better in ways that words don’t.”
On carbs and casseroles
Cann says we often think of casseroles when we think of food and grief. From funeral potatoes popular in Mormon communities to lasagnas, they are a staple of those who are in mourning.
“The interesting thing about casseroles is that they are always portable, they are always large, they are meant to serve communities, and they are usually reheatable … they are usually one-pot dishes. It’s not a taco spread that’s more complicated and requires labor.”
“I feel like the functional purpose is to recreate the community without the deceased and as you share this food, there is storytelling that goes on and you talk about the deceased and you tell stories. The act of sharing provides support, but it is more than that.”
Sugary sweets play a role in many cultures as they deal with death, Cann says. “A lot of cultures seem to use the sensory notion of taste and sweetness as one way to dispel the grief and sadness of death.” Cann explains that Halloween and Dia de los Muertos are traditions that use sugar skulls and candy. She says in China, there’s a brown sugar candy that’s passed out as people leave a funeral. There’s a belief that bad fortune will follow you if you go home after the funeral without sweetening your palate, Cann says.
Cann has found rituals in many cultures which involve alcohol as an offering to the dead or to help the grieving.
She explains that the alcohol serves to elevate your senses “so you are no longer focused on your grief and your sadness.” She says there’s a transformation that takes place with “a chemical aspect to it as well, the endorphins that are happening as you get this pleasurable sense from the sugar or from the alcohol,” Cann explains.
We asked Cann to share a favorite recipe with us.
Cann’s Banana Chocolate Chip Bread (vegan optional)
Mix all ingredients below
1 cup of sugar
1 Tbsp of cinnamon
2 Tbsp of ground flaxseed mixed with a ¼ c of warm water; let sit for ten minutes, and then add (this is egg replacement; if you eat eggs you can simply put in 1 large egg)
2-3 brown bananas, mashed
1 Tbsp vanilla
1/3 cup plant-based milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
Then add dry ingredients and mix well
3 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1tsp baking powder
Last, add chocolate chips and/or nuts
½ cup vegan dark chocolate chips
½ cup chopped walnuts/ pecans (optional)
Bake @ 375 degrees for about 45 minutes or until done.
Cann says you can substitute pumpkin puree for the banana for a pumpkin version.
Dr. Candi Cann received her Ph.D. and A.M. from Harvard University following an M.A. from the University of Hawaii. She currently serves as an Associate Professor at Baylor University and her research focuses on death, dying, and grief. She is especially interested in the intersections of marginality, diversity, and death technologies, and loves to talk all things death. She is a 2022-23 Fulbright Scholar, and will be examining death and religious pluralism in South Korea in the spring and summer of 2023.