Several hours after David, my father-in-law, died, my mother called. “I’m making a brisket,” she said.
“Now?” I glanced at the clock. It was 7:30 in the morning.
“I know.” Then her voice wavered. “I couldn’t think what else to do.”
None of us could. We couldn’t start making the awful phone calls and funeral arrangements quite yet. We couldn’t sleep — and hadn’t. We were overwhelmed by details like showering and getting dressed. So my husband, Benjamin, and I sat amid a war zone of crumpled tissues and held each other. We waited for our hearts to stitch themselves together; we waited for the world to make sense.
When you’re shocked and grieving, what else can you do?
For some, the answer is prayer. For others, like my father-in-law — as secular a guy as they came — solace and escape came through work. For my mother, Marcia, there’s brisket. It is both simple and succulent, her signature dish, the one she trots out at holidays. She makes it for company and makes it for comfort.
So it is in many cultures: when someone dies, you cook. The precedent is as old as mankind, and initially was not about feeding the living, but the dead. The Celts believed the journey from life to death is hard work, requiring fortification by way of eats, or what they called lon bais (death sustenance). It didn’t take long for folks to realize those left behind to mourn aren’t having a day at the beach, either.
In grief, your carefully constructed life crashes and falls away, leaving you exposed, raw, helpless as a newborn. Or it feels like a bone lodged in the throat, a calcification of the heart. The bits of you that ought to be open are obstructed. The pain of loss dulls your senses, creates a force field around your body, makes you impervious to the world around you and especially impervious to its pleasures. You shut down.
Maybe that’s why, in the wake of death, feeding those who mourn is part of our human hardwiring. It’s not a matter of feeding hunger; it’s about tempting and coaxing and calling the grieving back into the world. To eat is to engage, to strengthen, to unwrap from that first layer of sorrow’s embrace and partake of the life force.
I used to fight the funerary flow of what my family calls DPF (Dead People’s Food). Over the years, I’ve come to realize it can console those who bring it as well as those it’s meant to comfort. We all know death is coming, yet it is always a shock. Death exposes our own helplessness. If we can’t change the course of nature, at least we can make dinner.
The very act of cooking means taking one step, then another. There is brisket to roast, chopping to be done, dull physical acts that impel us towards life. Cooking walks the thin line between sacrament and faking it till you make it. It engages us; it fills the emptiness. This is something David would understand.
Now is not the time for exotic recipes or kitchen challenges. It is a time for the familiar, for the traditional, for what is easy to prepare and digest, be it funeral potatoes, baked ham, lemon pie, or noodle casserole. For my mother, it is brisket, which she made for Benjamin, who loves it and loves her. She made it to fend off grief, to show Death who’s boss.
“I know you won’t eat any,” she told me, and sighed. She knows that when my heart breaks, my stomach goes right along with it; I don’t want to eat anything, let alone Marcia’s famous brisket. I am her odd vegan child. She has come to terms with it, but on some level, even after all these years, it is still a blow, an affront that this wonderful thing she makes — her cure-all, her magic trick — is lost on me.
But it isn’t. For me, her gesture, her kindness was nourishment enough. Still, it wasn’t enough for my mother.
“I got some kale,” she said.
I blinked. Kale is green, a sign of life.
“And that local pumpkin — what’s it called?”
“I’ll roast it.”
She hates chopping pumpkin. Foreign or native, it is hard and unwieldy. And she isn’t crazy about kale, or rather, remains wary of what to do with it. It is not traditional DPF. But, dammit, like Demeter determined to rescue her daughter from the underworld, she was going to find a way.
“Come for dinner,” she said.
And so, after the wrenching job of breaking the news to friends and relatives, after our meeting at the funeral home, Benjamin and I fetched up on the steps of my parents’ home, two castaways. Grieving is hard work, and we sagged with it.
Formal religions have their way of saying death is part of a greater plan, but for the merely human, death just feels wrong. Life without David is wrong. And nothing we did or said would change that. So there was not a lot of talk at the table. Benjamin and my father ate brisket together in solidarity. My mother handed me the bowl of kale.
“Careful,” she said. “It’s hot.”
The leaves were tender, green, perfect. I chewed, swallowed. The knots in my throat, stomach, and heart loosened a little bit. I could feel the life force as I ate.
My mother would eat, then stop to adorn our plates with choice bits of pumpkin, burnished and sweet. Benjamin ate everything, including seconds of the brisket. Maybe thirds. I watched some color return to his face.
“That was just right,” he murmured on the drive home.
I nodded. Marcia’s brisket — the stuff of legend.
Then he said, “I really felt loved.”
Death cannot be vanquished — even Marcia’s brisket can’t do that. But food shared in the midst of sorrow allows for a moment of respite, of grace. It reminds us that even when there is loss, there is love.
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