Above is an image of a death anniversary, where departed family members are invited back to enjoy their favorite meals. It’s an annual oddity to honor the lives and achievements of the dearly departed. As a kid observing, I always wondered if the spirits thought: “This soup tastes like shit. Why can’t they ever get this right? ” Or maybe death doesn’t really change anything, and the spirits passively fire down mediocre food, just to be polite.
Many indigenous cultures, from the Yoruba tribes of Togo to the Aymara cultures of the South American Mountains, engage in the practice of libation and spiritual food offerings. For some, this includes collecting and saving ingredients over long periods of time, and then drudging in the kitchen for hours, believing that in some way ancestors can sense the hard labor put into making their favorite dishes.
But what if the dead’s favorite dishes are the hardest to prepare? Friends, co-workers, and relatives swear that they can never get the soup that grandma use to make, just right. Or how about poor uncle Joe’s 12 spiced chili (may his soul rest in peace), when no one bothered to ask him what the last 3 spices were before he was crushed by a McCormick truck. My own mother will misdirect me when it comes to recreating some of her favorite dishes. Her Vietnamese eggrolls are to die for, and she’ll engage in misinformation campaigns to keep them secret. This can only come back to bite her later, when I’m buying Costco eggrolls for her phantasmal dinner. It happens to proud chefs and grandmothers alike – food envy that leads to hostility. I’ve witnessed in real time Greek grandmothers locking eyes with one another, ready to shank each other over the best lamb shank recipes.
This makes it ever so critical to be in the good graces of our elders and the nearly departed, not solely to steal their actual recipes to maintain a food legacy, but to establish a tangible, edible way to remember them when they pass on. After all, the living still need to eat.