I didn’t know my sister-in-law as well as I should have, but I do know she loved margaritas.
Diane was famous for packing her blender in the car for the drive from Michigan to Florida each year for spring break. On a few occasions, my family was there at the same time, so we’d sit together with our toes in the sand at Daytona Beach, drinking frosty margaritas while the kids played in the ocean and Diane’s husband’s skin acquired a steamed-lobster-like hue. The last time I saw her, at a family event, she served up tart strawberry margaritas with her bald head wrapped in a brightly colored silk scarf. She had just started chemotherapy treatments that summer for breast cancer, and by the following March, Diane was gone.
March 15 is the one day that everyone in my husband’s family has in common. We each hold a strong memory of it, so when the first anniversary of Diane’s death arrived, there was a sense of discomfort around it. How do you observe the death of a loved one? At some point, we all decided that the answer was obvious: We would drink margaritas — not for the purpose of numbing the pain, but to somehow feel Diane’s presence among us.
“There’s a certain amount of dread that people feel as a death anniversary looms,” says Litsa Williams, a clinical social worker in Baltimore who specializes in grief and bereavement. “Grief is about figuring out how to have a relationship with the person who died, and sharing food they loved can be a very tangible way to feel close to them.”
In many cultures and religions, food is integral to how the dead are remembered, from sugar skulls for Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations to offerings of fruit and vegetables at the Japanese Obon festivals. For some, it might be making Dad’s favorite beef stroganoff or visiting the Irish pub where your brother hung out. For others, such as some observant Jews, when keeping the ritual of yahrzeit, it might involve abstaining from food altogether.
“There’s a lot of sensory stimuli that surrounds our memories of loved ones,” says the Rev. Paul Abernathy, an Episcopal priest in South Carolina who for decades has helped the bereaved face death anniversaries. “Food, taste and aromas, like music and images, can bring somebody very vividly into our presence. It can be joyous and wrenching at the same time.”
Growing up in the Greek Orthodox church in Albany, N.Y., Victoria Lord was no fan of kolyva , a mixture of wheat berries, nuts, dried fruit and confectioners' sugar, served at church services on the anniversary of a parishioner's death.
“My mother would say, ‘You have to eat a spoonful in their memory’ — whether I had known this person or not — and I really hated it,” Lord recalls. “As I grew older, I understood that it was a reminder that life goes on and that life is sweet. The kolyva is part of a communal obligation to remember this person, a reminder that we aren’t alone in our grief.”
“Food constantly brings us back to our loved ones, our friends, nurturing ourselves through the loss, feeding ourselves, giving our bodies something that connects us emotionally to sustenance,” says Tembi Locke, author of “From Scratch” (Simon & Schuster, 2019). The memoir about her husband, Sicilian chef Saro Gullo, who died in 2012 of leiomyosarcoma, explores Locke’s immersion in cooking and grief since his death. “Cooking is about surrender,” she writes. “He had always demonstrated that.”
The first anniversary of Gullo’s death provided an opportunity for Locke and their then 7-year-old daughter, Zoela, to feel his presence at the table, by cooking fava beans that Gullo had planted in the garden of their Los Angeles home. Unsure of how to prepare the freshly picked beans, Locke called her mother-in-law in Sicily for instructions, sharing a taste memory that spanned continents and cultures.
“Fava beans have a double meaning for us,” Locke says. “It’s an heirloom bean representing the continuity of life, generation to generation, and they grow in the springtime at the same time that Saro died. Saro taught me that the fava bean actually replenishes the soil in its growth: that sounded very fortuitous and auspicious — his life was still giving to us.” Fava beans now grace the menu each year on Gullo’s deathday.
Bowls of rice lined the altar at the Van-Hanh Buddhist Temple in Centreville, Va., at a ceremony marking the 49th day after Tam Do's death. Do's cousin, Vietnamese chef Germaine Loc Swanson, says the food rituals surrounding death anniversaries in Vietnamese culture create continuity between the living and their ancestors, providing a taste of the ingredients that have sustained generations.
A basket of tangerines, brought to the temple by Swanson and symbolizing good luck and prosperity, was distributed by the monks after the ceremony. The feast, prepared by Do’s family, featured favorite dishes, including fresh summer rolls stuffed with tofu, jicama and herbs, and a jellied dessert of bright green pandan and coconut milk.
“In our tradition,” Swanson says, “the dead are always with us, they hear our prayers, they are there at the table. We feel their presence no matter how much time has passed.”
Michael Serafin-Wells still sets a place at the table for his partner Summer Serafin, who also sang with him in their band, Bipolar Explorer. Since Summer’s death in 2011, Serafin-Wells has immersed himself in writing music exploring his grief, which typically culminates in a live performance for friends in his New York City apartment — complete with a home-cooked meal in Summer’s honor.
“I loved cooking for Summer,” Serafin-Wells says, “so it seems like this natural extension. She also loved to bake and made sure that my kitchen got all kitted out with the right pans and equipment the first time she came to visit me. She made incredibly complicated cupcakes — it was how she shared her love.” Serafin-Wells now finds himself baking those same cupcakes on Summer’s death anniversary and delivering them to nuns living nearby.
“Cooking has become something that I gift to others,” he says.
The anniversary of the death of Kate Carson’s daughter Laurel is a complex intertwining of birth and loss. Laurel was diagnosed with severe brain abnormalities in June 2012 when Carson was 35 weeks pregnant with her, leading to a procedure in which the fetus was euthanized in utero before labor was induced. “One of the hard things about having a baby who died is there’s not a lot of space that’s naturally made in our culture to talk about it,” Carson says, “and I had a 2 1/2- year-old daughter who wanted to know what had happened to her sister.”
When daughter Elsie got a little older, Carson began including her in decisions about how to observe Laurel’s birth — and death — anniversary. “A 4-year-old is always going to say ‘cake’ for a birthday,” Carson says. “The first couple of years, she just wanted to put candles on the cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ — that was hard because it wasn’t happy for me.”
Now that Elsie is 9, Carson thinks that Elsie and Carson’s youngest daughter, who is 5, will want to get into the kitchen and bake from scratch. “It’s a healthy tradition,” she says. “The love survives, and we can feel it.”
In the 14 years since Diane’s death, I’ve grown to appreciate my family’s margarita tradition. That taste of salt, lime and tequila establishes a connection across time and distance, a sense that my sister-in-law is holding a margarita in her hand at the same moment, relaxed and happy with her toes in the sand.
Diane, this one’s for you.
Hartke is a food writer and recipe developer, as well as culinary producer for chef Carla Hall. She writes at kristenhartke.com.
38 servings (makes 9 ½ cups)
MAKE AHEAD: This dish takes 2 days to prepare to soak, cook and then drain and dry the wheat berries. They can then be refrigerated for up to 2 days before combining with the other ingredients.
Adapted from recipes courtesy of Victoria Lord and TheGreekVegan.com.
For the kolyva
1 pound (2 cups) dried wheat berries
One 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted (see NOTE)
1 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (arils; from 1 fresh pomegranate)
½ cup roasted sesame seeds
½ cup golden raisins
⅓ cup shelled unsalted pistachios (may substitute pine nuts or slivered almonds)
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
½ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup finely crushed graham crackers or paximadia (Greek biscotti; may substitute lightly toasted almond flour or chickpea flour)
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Whole blanched almonds, Marcona almonds, Jordan almonds or yogurt-covered almonds
A few small sprigs curly parsley, stems trimmed (optional)
For the kolyva: Soak the wheat berries for 8 hours or overnight in a large pot filled with water; rinse in a colander and drain well.
Place the drained berries back in the pot, cover with cold water, add the cinnamon stick and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook for 1 hour, until the wheat berries are tender yet still slightly chewy. Drain in a fine-mesh strainer; discard the cinnamon stick.
Rinse with cold water, then line a rimmed baking sheet with a clean kitchen towel and spread the drained wheat berries evenly on top of the pan. Place another clean dish towel over the wheat berries, pressing down lightly to help blot any remaining moisture. Let dry for 8 hours.
Transfer the cooked/dry wheat berries to a mixing bowl, along with the toasted walnuts, pomegranate and sesame seeds, raisins, nuts, parsley, orange zest and salt, tossing gently to incorporate. This is best done no more than a few hours before serving.
To serve, mound the kolyva on a large platter, then sift the crushed graham crackers over the mound; this barrier layer will help keep the confectioners’ sugar from melting into the kolyva). Sift a thick coating of the sugar over the top.
Use the whole almonds to form a cross over the top of the mound, then arrange the parsley sprigs at the bottom of the cross, if desired.
NOTE: Toast the walnuts in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
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