Memorial Day is America’s secular remembrance day. Most countries celebrate death and/or resurrection with religious holidays, but our grand national day, now turned weekend, has its origin in war—the one fought between the northern and southern states in the 1860s. Like other civic memorials, this one morphed in significance and focus once those who could remember the war had died. Today, more Americans probably associate Memorial Day with NASCAR racing and politicking than with visiting graveyards and reminiscing about their family’s dead, never mind those who served in the Civil War.
One fine way to remember one’s dead on Memorial Day is to cook for them—that is, to cook the foods they most enjoyed, and use the cooking and the eating of those foods as a way to invoke their continued presence in our lives.
When push comes to shove, most people’s favorite foods are very simple: custard, hash, congee, tapioca pudding, ful, polenta, barbecue, dal, rice pudding, apple or chicken pot pie—nursery or peasant dishes that fill bellies easily and cheaply, often the earliest solid foods we were fed as children. I’ve worked for and fed many elderly people, and these are the foods they request once teeth and appetites begin to wane. They’re foods that remind us of ourselves when we were vigorous and young—comforting sensory bridges between our past and our now. Just smelling them as they’re being cooked brings a flood of memories and anticipatory pleasure.
I once cooked the last meal for a man in his early forties who was dying, and he was very explicit about how he wanted me to prepare his chicken and greens. From the kitchen, I could hear him call out excitedly whenever odors drifted his way from the skillet, the big pot on the rear burner. I arranged his feast on a tray for him, happy that he was going to have a meal as close to his mother’s Sunday supper as I could make it.
After swiping his knife across one chicken leg and staring down at the plate, he sank back in bed and told me he was finished eating. Once the food was actually in front of him, his need for it was over. It had been the anticipation of eating, his keen pleasure in being cooked for, that most excited him. Darryl’s meal was as ceremonial as the dishes brought to gravesides all over the world to feed people’s dead: an act of caring rather than an act of eating.
This Memorial Day, cook the favorite dish of someone you love, and remember that person as you eat it. Such food is a reminder that attentiveness and simplicity lie at the heart of love.