When comfort foods are shared with family and friends in times of need, they become foods of compassion.
These dishes are among the best-loved foods in America. They incorporate, yet transcend, ethnic heritage, religious customs, and geography.
Cheesy potato casserole, noodle kugel, sauteed rice, and chicken mole are comfort foods fit for any occasion from a family dinner to a celebration. As compassion foods, they may be taken by friends to the door of a grieving family or turn up on the table at a luncheon after a funeral.
While we may think that the loss of a loved one means the loss of appetite, this is not necessarily true. Neither is it permanent or healthy. Across cultures and religions, sharing food is a way that people support those who are grieving, who have more to think about than preparing a meal.
Cheesy potato casserole is a recipe that has evolved from peeled and diced fresh potatoes. Larry Oberdorf remembers his grandmother making the dish 50 years ago; today a newer version uses frozen hash brown potatoes. "Her recipe was very time-consuming," says Mr. Oberdorf.
He and his wife, Nancy, often volunteer to make cheesy potatoes when a funeral luncheon is held at St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in East Toledo. The recipe is used at many family occasions for the Oberdorfs. It is also a dish that is known nationwide for after-funeral dinners that neighbors or fellow church members hold for families.
Recipe versions include hash browns or shredded potatoes with sour cream, cheddar cheese, and cream of chicken soup. "I've seen it topped with crushed potato chips," says Mr. Oberdorf. Many people use low-fat sour cream and low-fat margarine to reduce the fat and calories in this delicious recipe.
Genan Vogel of Springfield Township received the same recipe from an Ohio friend with family in Arizona. She tops her recipe with crunchy cereals such as corn flakes.
Locally, luncheons often consist of hot dishes, salads, and desserts. "Usually [the luncheon for family and guests] is held after the graveside service," says Carol Traver of St. Mark's.
She keeps a list of church members who volunteer to provide dishes. "It's pot-luck. Usually we have a meat tray and a cheese tray, deviled eggs - there can never be enough of these, scalloped corn or corn pudding. If someone brings hot chicken, that's always gone quickly. We always have macaroni and cheese and Nancy and Larry Oberdorf always bring cheesy potatoes."
"The foods that are time-consuming to make seem to be the com fort foods that people bring to these luncheons," says Ms. Traver. "Desserts range from apple crisp to zucchini breads. Pies are the first to go. Brownies go well, too; it's finger food."
In the Jewish tradition, noodle kugel is among the most popular compassion foods. It is a dairy-type dish, which fits into the traditional meal after a funeral.
At the meal of condolence, "There is always hard-boiled eggs, which is a symbol of the continuation of life," says Fagie Benstein, past president of Temple B'nai Israel. "Dairy-type foods are served, such as tuna fish, lox, whitefish, cottage cheese, noodle kugel, simple foods." Sweets are held to simple dishes, such as coffee cakes.
"The mourning period starts immediately after the funeral," she says. During the seven days of mourning, food is taken to the mourners.
Another food of compassion is sauteed rice.
This Middle-Eastern favorite is as likely to appear at a meal after a Muslim funeral as at some Eastern Orthodox Christian Meals of Mercy. Recipes vary, however, and some versions are made without meat.
After a Muslim funeral, "There is a meal after the service," says Eva Hatoum, a member at the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo. "Many times we go back to the mosque for rice and stew, made by volunteers. When there is a death, they are there to comfort you."
Fatima Al-Hayani, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies who lectures at area universities, says, "The family of the deceased is cared for by the neighbors, the friends, and the community. Food is prepared for after the burial for everyone, especially those who have come from out of town. It could be whole lambs with rice and yogurt, chicken with rice, and other vegetables. Sweets are also delivered to the home of the deceased in order to serve with coffee or fresh juice to those offering their condolences."
Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds have unique food customs. Locally, however, meat is generally served with sauteed rice. Middle-Eastern rice is cooked with little pieces of noodles (vermicelli) with oil and butter, salt, and sometimes meat and pine seeds. For other occasions, "Some people add peas or sauteed ground meat. It looks beautiful," says the professor.
A similar sauteed rice is included at the Meal of Mercy following a funeral at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral. The menu includes chicken (or fish on Wednesday and Friday), green beans made with celery and tomato sauce, and sauteed rice (using rice and orzo noodles and without meat on Wednesday and Friday), according to Rose Sommer.
At Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the meal after a funeral is called the Makaria and is described as "almost like a Lenten meal" by Kathy Chaka, president of the Ladies Philoptochos Society.
This traditional luncheon held after services is prepared by Mary Markham and her committee for members of the family and good friends. The menu includes fried fish, olives, feta cheese, rolls, salad, and small glasses of wine. Homemade Zwieback toast is made, which she describes as similar to biscotti (which the Italians flavor with anise but which the Greeks spice with cinnamon and vanilla).
For the Hispanic community, chicken mole (MOL-lay) and tamales are comfort foods. In Lina Barrera's experience, funeral luncheons include a mole. "It's chicken covered with a sauce made of up to eight types of chiles, peanuts, chocolate, and a mixture of seasonings," she says.
(The Blade tested a shortened version of chicken mole that used almonds and ancho, mulato, and pasilla chiles, which thickened the dark sauce. Note that chicken stock was an ingredient, so the mole is not as dark as in some recipes.)
"Food is positive energy and will give the family strength and protection and energy throughout the coming year," she says.
Tamales are also traditionally served. Made with corn masa and wrapped in corn husks, they are stuffed with a variety of meats, vegetables, or fruits.
"Sometimes the luncheon is in the basement of the church or the home," says Mrs. Barrera. "Dishes that go to the home might be rice and meat, something to be reheated and shared. Sweets are not necessarily used, although empanadas and (Mexican) cookies are bought at bakeries."