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Foods that memorialize those no longer with us

I had a sort of "honorary grandfather" who taught me how to make bread by hand, as well as some classic Italian specialties in his repertoire. He passed away several years ago, but even today when I make bread, it seems to conjure vivid memories.

My mom likes to go our for a classic martini when she visits me in New York, in memory of my father's favorite Friday night drink.

Do people have special foods and special preparations that they eat/make in honor of the deceased?

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  1. I honor my grandfather whenever we have Japanese food (either at home or at a restaurant) by pouring some tea into a bowl of rice to eat. He'd always finish a meal that way (at least, that's how I remember it), and I learned to do it as a child. Now, I do it because I miss him.

    Great thread, thanks.

    1. we make my grandma's strudel recipe for special occasions and large family gatherings and when we get to the dessert course and it is served it is a great moment to talk about her for a few minutes - she died 10 years ago.

      1 Reply
      1. re: smartie

        My brother in law died two years ago-way too young. He was a great guy and, born in Italy, basically taught the whole family (lace-curtain-mashed-potato-Irish) how to cook. But it is when we make a simple salad that I remember him best.
        1. Take the best green lettuce you can find (butter is best) and break by hand.
        2. Gently toss it with excellent olive oil until it is just slightly bruised.
        3. Drizzle with lemon juice from thin-skinned lemons.
        4. Add salt
        5. Enjoy!

      2. Oh my, yes. In fact I'm making the dish this weekend for a family gathering. Glorified rice. One of my uncles, gone now for 15 years, had a serious love of the dish. In our family's peculiar little pocket of Midwestern Scandinavianism, the dish comprised cooked rice blended with sweetened/vanilla'd whipped cream and drained canned fruit cocktail. (It is oddly compelling, I have to say...and not all SO bad for you in the grand scheme of things.) Aforementioned Uncle would scoop up a huge bowl, prop himself in the corner of a room and hold court, with stories and jokes and teasing. My family members invariable cite memories of that uncle whenever glorified rice makes its way onto the potluck table. And everyone smiles. That's the secret ingredient - the memories.

        2 Replies
        1. re: cayjohan

          Mom (Danish) made it using canned crushed pineapple for the fruit component.I think she called it "heavenly rice".

          1. re: cayjohan

            My grandma (German) called this Rice Salad - she used red grapes and pineapple. She also added walnuts. She is from Kansas.

          2. Three days before my mom passed away, she requested bi bim bap as her last meal. While she had really not eaten for weeks (she had advanced pancreatic cancer), she forced the food down her stomach. About a day before she died, she had hallucinations of persimmons. So on the anniversary of her death, I put out bi bim bap and a plate of beautifully arranged persimmons. I plan on doing this every year.

            1. Every time I make biscuits I think of my grandma.

              My mom called this morning and they're going down to clean out Gram and Papa's house (Gram's been gone for 25 years and Papa died a year and a half ago, but my uncle Galen had been living there until last January). She asked me if I wanted anything from the house. I'm getting Gram's pots and pans. Nothing special, just a set of Club pans and maybe some cast iron. But they were Gram's.

              1. At my age, at least half the things I cook could be a memorial to one long-gone loved one or another...and even to a few folks maybe not so sharply missed, except for their cooking ;-). But the ongoing "memorial", for my money, is the love of food and interest in cooking that I learned from so many of these people, and the fact that I'm keeping their cuisine alive and further building on it, as much because of the examples they set as anything else. Thanks for the cookies, Grandma Kuntz, and for the roasts and braises and German things, Grandpa Kuntz. Thanks for the fried chicken, Grandma Owen...not because you gave me the recipe, which you'd never do, but for giving me something I've spent decades trying to duplicate! And thanks to my mom, who showed me how it's quite possible to go from a mediocre recipe-follower to an earnest seeker after culinary truth well after 40!

                1. Pies, without a doubt...my mother's were legendary. It's my lifelong quest to make a crust as good as hers. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer!

                  1. Gumbo with lots of gooey okra, extremely rare roast beef just removed from the donor and served with an unseasoned gravy, frozen string beans and lima beans were favored. An appetizer of Skippy Peanut Butter spread on Triscuits and topped with chopped bacon bits also comes to mind. Those were very popular.....Can't say I make any of them myself but if I eat them somewhere else, I certainly think of those good old days.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: mvi

                      I can not have a Thanksgiving without those tiny pearl onions in cream sauce and a turkey with POTATO stuffing ! Yes my Dad loved both and now I do a simple single dish of baked potato stuffing for me ....but tiny onions for all ...( yes very Irish )... before we knew NOT to actually stuff the turkey I would make coarsely mashed potatoes with finely chopped onions , Bells seasoning , S&P, fill the bird and cook ...and of course he had to have regular mashed potatoes as well . very Irish I guess but I too have never met a potato I didn't like..my Mom who is still with us thinks Thanksgiving is all about butternut squash

                      1. re: capeanne

                        Every December when I haul out the vast Mason and Cash bowl my father used to make the cassava pie for Christmas, I feel my parents' presence. My Scots mother had to apprentice for many years before my father would allow her to make this most Bermudian of dishes. We used to grow the cassava and peel and grind it, but these days I get it from a local farmer. I have taught my son how to make it, though at this point he just excels at eating it.

                        1. re: Athena

                          My foodie husband (gone now more than 10 years) persuaded me to try oysters by making the most divine oyster stew. No recipe, of course, but still the best Ive ever eaten. He died suddenly, and took the recipe with him, so I cannot replicate it. I would never try.

                          Grandmother's fruitcake was the first I ever tasted, and everyone else's was held to her standard. It was more candied fruits than cake or nuts, and you could slice it so thin, it looked like stained glass. Some of my cousins have tried to replicate it, and come close. But its just not quite the same. And of course Gram didnt use recipes either. Each of us cousins has asked her for her recipe for this or that (strudel, potica, fruitcake, casseroles, etc.) only to find years later, when we compared the versions we got with each other, she had given us different quantities or ingredients for the same dishes. Im not sure this was intentional, or just forgetfulness, but it made us all realize that she got the last laugh.

                    2. What a great thread, especially with the holidays approaching (dia de los muertos, thanksgiving, etc.)! Thanks for posting this!

                      Every Thanksgiving my cousin makes her mom's (my aunt) spiced peaches. It's not a very "foodie" recipe--basically just canned peaches with cloves and cinnamon--but my aunt made them lovingly every year and it just isn't Thanksgiving without them. So we always have those on the table in her honor.

                      1. Gram, how I miss you so...

                        Corned Beef
                        Cottage Cheese w/ Noodles
                        Peppermint Ice Cream

                        These are not homemade, but pizza from Numero Uno (in Los Angeles), Entemann's cakes, Cinnamon danishes from Beverlywood Bakery (also in LA)

                        1. My daughter was once invited to a Memorial Day party. She was told everyone was to bring the favorite dish of someone deceased that they wished to honor. She brought cherry pie, which was Brennan's favorite. At the party, everyone talked about their deceased friend or relative and I think it was a wonderful thing to do.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: walker

                            What a absolutely awesome idea - I must do this!

                          2. When holidays arrive, I get into making the Jewish-y, eastern European dishes my mother made for us. Last Passover, when I was making a batch of matzo balls that came out especially well, I needed to "talk" to Mom, who passed away in 2001. I have her ashes in an urn and brought it into the kitchen where she could be part of the process. It is a wee bit creepy, but it made me feel connected to her.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: EllenMM

                              Not creepy. I know a woman who has her mom and dad in cute boy and girl salt & pepper shakers (holes sealed off) on her kitchen window sill and she consults them as she happily cooks.

                              1. re: torty

                                This time of year, the foods I miss most of my mother's are her fruit cakes and mince pies. The stories of cremation bring her sharply to mind. I was surprised when my father had her cremated. I'd never heard her mention it. But Dad had her ashes in a bronze urn on their mantlepiece, and every morning he would brew two cups of coffee -- one for him, one for her -- and chat with her for a while as he had done every morning when she was alive.

                                A couple of weeks after her cremation, he called me with a special request. "Sis, you're about the most responsible member of the family, so I want you to promise me that when I die, you'll have your mother's ashes put in my arms before you bury me."

                                I was touched by his desire that they be together for all eternity. "Dad, I can do even better than that. What about having you cremated and putting both your ashes in the same urn?

                                His voice was tight. "Oh my god! Don't do that! I never had her permission to cremate her, and what if she's mad?"

                                That was a decade or two ago, and my dad is gone too now, her urn resting in his arms. But here it is the holiday season, and me without a decent fruit cake. Or mince pie! Maybe if I steep a store-bought fruit cake in some heavy booze....

                                1. re: Caroline1

                                  Your post really touched me. I, too, miss my mother's great Italian cooking. My mother had her regrets about cremating my father (the only way he could be buried in military cemetery in San Francisco). She went around saying, "he's burned to a crisp." Now, she's there with him.

                                  1. re: walker

                                    Thank you, Walker. As long as we remember them, they live on...

                            2. My Mom passed away about fourteen years ago. She made the best stuffed cabbage I've ever eaten, and also the best homemade cornbread with chopped onions & jalapeno peppers. Anytime I eat those two foods, I think lovingly of her. Unfortunately, she never wrote down the recipes for either, so I've never been able to replicate them...I've tried, but mine just don't taste quite as good.

                              1. This is a beautiful topic, because it really gets to the heart of something very human about food.

                                One evening, on my way home from work, I bought a piece of cod for dinner. I got it home. What to do? Hmm. I thought that I'd roast it, topped with very finely diced shallot, thinly sliced tomato, salt, pepper, a bit of thyme and paprika, dressed with a bit of olive oil. A sort of vaguely Portuguese inspiration, right? As soon as I tasted my first forkful, I was immediately transported back over 20 years to my Finnish grandmother's lunch table. I was 13 years old, and for lunch she had roasted a whole pike stuffed with sweet onions and tomato. I had been thinking Portuguese, but apparently she was standing behind my shoulder whispering Finnish wisdom. I can't help but think of her every time I make it. With the approach old cold weather, I have resolved to master her coffee bread (pulla) and cinnamon buns (korvapustit).

                                I make a very clear chicken soup with acini di pepe ("snowball" pasta), dressed with grated parmigiano... the simple masterpiece of comfort made by the Friulan woman who took care of me as a child. And, I still attempt, but haven't mastered, her ragu.

                                My Scottish Canadian grandmother was a very reluctant cook, but after school, when I was in highschool, she and I would often have fresh orange slices with syrup-packed ginger root with our tea, while we plotted against the rest of the family. As soon as I taste anything like that, I'm transported back to that moment.

                                I wonder whether the portal to time travel is located on the tongue.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: hungry_pangolin

                                  Thank you, hp...you write very well and I was transported back to afternoons with MY Scottish Canadian Nana...

                                  1. re: hungry_pangolin

                                    That orange and ginger sounds heavenly.

                                    You might like Tessa Kiros's book Falling Cloudberries - lots of recipes from her Finnish mother and fabulous photographs of Finland.

                                  2. My Italian grandmother was a great cook. She never measured anything other than by judging how much to add by looking at it in the palm of her hand. When she made pasta she would put a mountain of flour on the metal kitchen table, made a valley in it for the other ingredients, throw them in, knead everything together and roll it out with an old wooden dowel.

                                    Every time I cook and I pour some ingredient into the palm of my hand to "measure" it, I think of her. I often think of this as proof that there is such a thing as eternal life.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: woodys

                                      My parents owned a Mom & Pop restaurant aka a greasy spoon..they are (both) long gone, but what remains so clear in my memory was watching my Mom take a ginormous(!!) Leg of Pork out of the oven! It was always served with real Mashed Potatoes, and those dreadful but ever popular (in those days late '50's!)canned peas & carrots and a side dish of her homemade applesauce. What I wouldn't give for one of those dinners right now!!

                                    2. To honor my maternal grandmother we make noodles. Nothing fancy - basically egg noodles cooked in chicken broth. They're a family tradition at all holidays. My sister has the pot she used to cook them in and I have her wooden rolling pin.

                                      To honor my paternal grandmother we make Steamed Pudding with hard sauce. Grandma C used to make this dense molasses cake in a steamer and top it with a raw egg and powdered sugar-based sauce that just melted over the still-warm pudding. The exact recipe for the hard sauce is still unknown so we've tried many iterations (sans raw egg) but still haven't gotten it quite right. The steamed pudding recipe is in hand - and my dad even has a copy in his safe deposit box so as to not lose site of this family tradition.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: HungryLetsEat

                                        That sauce sounds like a cross between Nigella's brandy butter and iced rum sauce in How To Eat.

                                      2. My entire Thanksgiving dinner is a homage to my husbands Grandmother. She was a wonderful cook, she taught me that fried chicken and gravy was not a gruesome dark brown greasy mess, but light and crispy chicken with heavenly cream gravy. She taught me to make bread and how to fold sheets - not that that has anything to do with food but she really taught me so much.

                                        When we decided that Thanksgiving was getting to be too much for our Grandparents and that we would start having it at our house instead, she came over and "helped' me make it - but really she made it - I helped and took notes, all the way down to the "till it looks right".

                                        Thanksgiving has been at our house every year since and I still use those notes. I think there would be a riot if I changed anything, not that I intend to!

                                        I found an un-labled VHS tape a couple of years ago, popped it in and it was from her last Thanksgiving in 1987. I burst into tears when I heard her. I miss her terribly.

                                        1. All of our holiday recipes...matzo ball soup, sweet and sour meatballs, cholent and brisket were all invented by my grandmother and we continue to make them at every holiday in her memory.

                                          1. Thanks for all of the stories so far! I had suspected people would have interesting associations, just hadn't expected all of the recollections to be this moving. Some really incredible tributes in here.

                                            1. Cabbage noodles, cucumber salad, and palaczinta remind me of my father, who came to the US from Hungary in the 60s. He made cabbage noodles every time I visited him because it was/ is my favorite. He died 3 years ago but now when his sister, my aunt, makes it, I feel like he's at dinner with us.

                                              My maternal grandmother was a very unpleasant person but made the most amazing shortbread, the recipe for which she passed on to my mother and aunt. I try and think of them when I eat it.

                                              1. My father was a wonderful man, but cooking was not an interest of his. So it really surprised me when one weeknight for dinner, he made the salad, while Mom prepared the rest of the meal. It was a Greek salad, based on two salads he had eaten in Chicago's Greektown at the (now) long-departed Grocery Diana and at the still-in-existence-and-going-strong Parthenon. It was the best salad that I had ever had and still is. Everything in it was extremely strong and spicy. My Dad had just retro-engineered the recipe from paying attention to what the salads were like at those two restaurants. Greek salads, back in the sixties, were practically unheard of and my Dad had never before exhibited any ability to figure out a recipe simply by eating it. That salad became a staple at special occasion meals and I will always remember him and his gusto for life when I eat it.

                                                1. My wife's next door neighbor, Violet, taught her to make biscuits not long before she was suddenly and tragically killed in a car accident. We always thank her for the cast iron skilletsful of love.

                                                  Our first born child was a male Maltese puppy for whom we'd boil ten pound bags of chicken leg quarters. We'd boil a big batch, pull the legs & thighs out, add more and repeat. The broth was intense! My father-in-law couldn't get enough of the stuff. We talked about Zach and Da as we strained and stored chicken stock last weekend.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: AreBe

                                                    I make what I call "Transylvanian Pasta Sauce". Not really Transylvanian - my grandmother, who emigrated from Transylvania to the U.S., really got the recipe from a Sicilian neighbour in New York City. She made it, tauight it to my mother, who taught it to me. They're both gone now, but it's still the best pasta sauce I have ever eaten.

                                                  2. Well I hate beets with a passion, but whenever I go to a salad bar I throw a few on my plate and eat them because they were my grandmother's favorite.

                                                    1. Ah, grandmothers... they just have the magic touch.

                                                      My Grammy made the most amazing toast. I think it was Arnold light italian sliced bread, toasted, with Parkay margerine. I laugh when i think about it b/c how could I not be able to replicate that? But it just tastes different.

                                                      She also made the world's most amazing pancakes, with Bisquick. I'm sure many would argue that there is no subsitute for "from scratch," but to this day I have never had better pancakes. My uncle has tried to replicate them and come close, but there was just this taste... my mom says it was love :)

                                                      1. What a lovely thread. I think I honor both of my parents every time I eat, because they were the best cooks I've ever known, and it's entirely thanks to them that I eat healthy and am open to lots of different types of food and have such a love for food. However, Thanksgiving holds a special place in my heart. For this immigrant family who only celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving, my mother was like a kid waking up on Christmas Day opening up presents...only she got excited about preparing the meal. She passed away exactly two weeks before Thanksgiving, and I actually had a dream in which she was preparing a Thanksgiving meal in her new "home."

                                                        What I would give to share one more meal with my parents!

                                                        1. Grandma Meechie, my paternal grandmother was a wonderful cook. I was named after her and we were very close. I spent my childhood weekends with her as her "company keeper". She cooked whatever I wanted to eat. She would make pizza in her cast iron skillet. She would make hamburgers and "skinny french fries" at my request (I was high maintenance even as a kid). I have her skillets now, which originally belonged to her mother.

                                                          Grandma Meechie as a divorced mother of four worked her way up from dishwasher to head dietitian at a nursing home. She made the best jello I've ever tasted. Apparently the secret is the juice from canned fruit cocktail. She also used fruit cocktail juice to in the batter for her blackberry cobbler crust. I never mastered the crust but I do make a version of blackberry cobbler with a special ingredient of my own.

                                                          Grandma Meechie made the most wonderful biscuits. It still amazes me that she made them without measuring. She always used a glass as a buiscuit cutter. I never mastered her biscuits - and I went to culinary school. It's funny, as I type this the Good Eats episode where Alton makes biscuits with his grandmother is on the TV.

                                                          1. One of my grandmothers signature dishes was Arroz Dolce, which is a Portuguese sweet rice pudding. I wanted to learn how to make it, but by that time, she had forgotten how. I made batch after batch, which she gently critiqued, trying to duplicate her recipe and was finally successful.
                                                            My grandma passed away last spring and I made the rice for one of the family dinners we had. I realized how successful I had been in duplicating the recipe when one of my aunts turned to me, with tears in her eyes, and told me it was just like her mothers.
                                                            Like many other dishes I make, I will never be able to make Arroz Dolce without thinking of my grandmother.

                                                            1. My husband still makes my grandmother's crab dip every Christmas.
                                                              And we always have a little of that canned cranberry sauce because my mother-in-law always liked it.
                                                              I can already think of some dishes that I'll make after my mother's gone just because she made them.

                                                              1. My grandmother worked at a small local bakery that made the best chocolate chip cookies in the world! They were made with lots of real butter and had this incredible texture. Every so often I will run across cookies like these and it will take me back to snowy afternoons (when school was closed) at the bakery with Grammom. I was allowed to eat all the cookies that were broken and couldn't be sold.

                                                                1. I am a collector of family recipes - from my own family as well as others so in a sense I honor those people every time I make one. I've lost a bunch of my family but their recipes live on -

                                                                  Grandpa's Tom & Jerry's - made for Thanksgiving or Christmas or both. Time was that there was a batch for the kids made with milk as opposed to the rum based for the adults but now we are all in the rum set

                                                                  Grandma's Pizelles - have to have a special iron for these but it was a tradition for us to make them at Christmas

                                                                  And her Kolaches - with prune filling yet so delish

                                                                  Mincemeat pie made with moosemeat if possible - the original recipe has been handed down through the maternal side for years and is measured in bowls as in a bowl of brown sugar, two bowls of raisins...and my favorite part - rum and brandy to taste!

                                                                  Mom's still around to make me lemon meringue pie but I've long been the holder of that recipe and the squeezer of lemons. I could make it myself but its so much better to have her do it.

                                                                  And every time I make stuffing, I think of mom up early simmering the turkey innards and filling the house with the smell of sauted onions, celery and sage.

                                                                  But the classic is Russian Tea - no matter what time of night you got up, there was gram in her housecoat, hair in curlers with a scarf around them, reading her Readers digest and drinking that tea.

                                                                  Thanks for a great thread!

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: AlaskaChick

                                                                    Hey, AlaskaChick, could you post the moose mincemeat on the homecooking board? And anything you know about its history.