The dead communicate with me when I cook. Its not like they’re whispering in my ear, they just nudge me. Sometimes I feel them distinctly, other times I look back and wonder “why did I add the oil from a jar of artichoke hearts to the soup?” My late Grandfather Eddie-Boy joins me often, especially when I’m cooking for an important occasion. I have his knife sharpening steel, cured with the oil and steam of a thousand meals, sitting on my windowsill.
Why is it that people throughout the world make food offerings to our ancestors? We don’t make “car” offerings, or “new shoe” offerings. It seems that what we miss the most when we die, besides the ones we love, is food. As Halloween approaches some communities are preparing to make food offerings to their ancestors at celebrations like “Dios de los Muertos”, translated:”the Day of The Dead”. Other feasts of ancestral food offerings in the Middle East once took place in spring near the time of our modern Easter celebration – “Khamis al-Amwat” for example. There is a relationship between food and the dead that reaches back to some of the earliest burial sites and most ancient rituals for passing from this life into the next.
Dios de los Muertos is thought by historians and anthropologists to find its origins in an ancient Aztec ritual honoring Mictecacihuatl the Queen of the Underworld. Perhaps making offerings to her allowed the dead one day of freedom to roam with the living. The Catholic Feast of All Souls is a time to improve the lot of those departed but still working to earn their way to heaven. Though fasting and prayers are offered today, one might assume food was once made as a plea to ease the strife of the suffering dead.
Samhain was the pre-Christian Irish Celt’s new year typically celebrated November 1st. With all the crops harvested and the dark days enveloping them, the abundance of food was at its peak, as was trafficking with the spirits. Animals that would not survive the winter were slaughtered to save on stock feed and provide food for celebrations like “Féile na Marbh” or the “Festival of the Dead”. It was the time to make peace with ancestors and strengthen ones self for the rough winter days to come. Resonant with rituals of making offerings at harvest time elsewhere in the world, the Festival of the Dead ensured a return of food next season. It was the means by which we participated in the rejuvenation of the land, our own lives and the life of our community.
Ritual food functions almost like a currency for the dead to pay for passage to a day of celebration with the living. Gaudy and garrish is required of the food in these rituals. Sweet candies, brightly decorated cakes and potent drinks reach through the veils reminding the dead of the abundance waiting in the land of the living. Food is one of those precious things that connect us all to this world.
When I wield my Grandfather’s steel I reach out to him, offering an invitation to share in the sacred honor of preparing food. He’s never turned down the chance to give me advice, he knows he is always welcome in my kitchen. He is always respectful, along with the others who’s names I don’t know but whose presence I feel.
I find the cooking advice I receive from the dead to be unexpected, but always correct. It has to do with temperature and ingredients, when to boil, when to turn down and what to add. I’m even given predictions about what ingredients will be available.
I reach for the zucchini and get a stale feeling.
“OK lets try the cauliflower. Yep, that will work, steam it and then puree with garlic.”
That doesn’t feel right.
“Bake it with olive oil and black pepper, it will go with the skirt steak you’re going to get at the store later after you find out they’re out of catfish.”
The food I cook with the dead is more nourishing to the tribes I feed. Perhaps less flashy than fine dining or offerings to entice the dead to visit, but more of what the living need to survive and thrive. The food the dead would have me cook is about nurturing, helping us on our way. They know better than us what we’ll face in the coming days.
Eddie-Boy died before I got to stand at his elbow and learn to cook with him. On days when the world threatens to overwhelm me I brandish his magical sharpening steel and carve a path to the other world as an invitation. This steel has seen the banquets of the wealthy and fed the hungry mouth of my Mother when she was an eager young child. Knowing Eddie-Boy he probably lifted it from one of his jobs. That makes it all the more magical – stolen from the kitchen of a king!
Many of us commune with our ancestors when we make use of their recipes. We see their handwriting, imagine their weathered hands scrawling down notes before returning to the flour dusted dough. Does this taste just the way Grandma made it? We conjure foods of the past as much to feed our bellies as to make material the ghosts of our loved ones. I find myself leaving a portion of the food on my plate uneaten. This has been my childlike way of breaking bread with those beloved and long gone.
There was a time when my relationship to my deceased Grandfather would have been one of the foundations of my life. Making use of his legacy of cooking could have meant the difference between life and death for my tribe. Consulting his spirit for advice on Samhain may have decided when I planted crops, which animals I slaughtered and which I tried to keep alive throughout the winter. Today we turn to science and modern technology for much of what our ancestors provided. I think we’ve given up some of our tenderness in the process.
Our ancient traditions cannot be completely erased, they are so basic to us as to be biological. The tangible remains of our tribal past take the form of recipes, photos and the sharpening steels of our ancestors. A stove is still a hearth, standing at mine its not so hard to see a pathway to those long gone but not forgotten.
At this altar to alchemy the miracle of food from the earth is married with fire, water and air to conjure meals that heal, sustain and bind us together. Like the wise druids scrying into fires for knowledge, I find a pathway across the land of the dead to my ancestral hearth when gazing into a pot of stew. Listen closely and you can hear them reminding me to keep stirring and to add a little more pepper.
A Recipe From Eddie-Boy – Beef Burgundy stew
1/2 lb. lean ham
3 lb. Beef (1 1/2 in cubes)
4 tbls butter
2 tblsp salt, pepper
2 cups burgundy
a small chopped onion
1 clove minced garlic
1 chopped carrot
Bouquet (parsley, bay leaf thyme) consume
1/4 cup brandy
16 small boiling onions
1 lb. mushrooms
first melt butter in a heavy casserole Brown meat, ham (slightly)
strain flour salt pepper wine chopped onion, carrot, garlic bouquet
add consume for liquid to pan level meat
simmer for 2 hours second (next day if wish)
add peeled onions, mushrooms brandy
cover and simmer 1 more hour serve over rice