After my father died last week, I found tremendous comfort in eating and sharing the foods that I grew up with and he loved. I realized that when a loved one dies, food is a universal currency that enables the human family to grieve together. That’s the true meaning of “comfort food,” as far as I’m concerned.
The term “comfort food’’ has become almost synonymous with “guilty pleasure” food–unhealthy, gooey, sweet, or salty food that you know you shouldn’t be eating. Entire restaurant menus are devoted to the concept of serving mac & cheese and sticky sweet stuff. But food needn’t be unhealthy in order to provide comfort during bereavement.
My cousins, Hazel and Laurence, ordered an enormous fish platter from Kaufman’s Deli in my home town, Skokie, to bring to my father’s house after the funeral. The platter was a sight to behold. There was lox, smoked fish, and pickled herring. There was gefilte fish and horseradish. There was tuna salad and egg salad, as well as cottage cheese, cream cheeses and sliced cheeses. There was sliced red onion and sliced tomato. And, of course, bagels and pumpernickel and more. And it was all delicious.
Dozens of people came in and out of the house during the day and evening as we sat shiva after the funeral. Although the story of the fish and loaves is not from my people, I couldn’t help think of it, because there was so much of everything, it seemed to be multiplying. It was as if a fountain of food was flowing from the table.
In addition to my generous cousins, dozens of other people brought their own version of comfort food in the days before and after the funeral. It wasn’t just Jewish comfort food—it came from many cultures.
I’m not going to argue that this was health food. I haven’t even mentioned the cookies and cakes. The point is that it was enormously comforting to be able to share these familiar foods with family and friends.
My father, who loved chewing a fresh bagel, eating a banana, and enjoying ice cream, was pretty much a meat and potatoes guy. The only cooked vegetables I remember him eating when I was growing up were corn, stewed tomatoes, and maybe canned green beans. As he got older and sicker, lost his sense of taste and much of his vision, and had to be fed, my sister Louise started sneaking broccoli and Brussels sprouts into his diet. She called it “vegetable,” and , to my amazement, he ate it. Mazel tov, Louise.
Beyond the food, I was comforted to be around people who knew my father and appreciated what a good person he was. Harold was a humble man and would have been surprised to see how many people came to his funeral and the shiva. And he would have been very glad that everyone had had enough to eat.
Ultimately, no type or amount of food can fill the hole that my father left when he died. I’ve resumed trying to eat a local, healthy, sustainable food diet. But I have a new understanding of what it means to feed the soul. And a new appreciation, not of “comfort food,” but of the comfort of food