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Using the ritual of food to remember those we’ve lost

Holiday recipes allow us to look back and see our ancestors standing in the gap

I’m a classic holiday grinch. When the days get shorter and the sun seems to set as soon as it rises, my mood dims. I know it’s coming: the dreaded holiday season.

There’s this ongoing joke in my family about Christmas decorating. My mother is obsessive about Christmas. She has an artificial tree, a garland that dangles on the staircase in our childhood home, multiple wreaths, pink satin stockings to hang on the mantel above the fireplace and, of course, the Black angels. Four of them, one for me and each of my three sisters. And every year since I was a child, I would make up a lie that I had a headache when we were all summoned to help don the house with Christmas cheer — with my mom blaring ’70s soul renditions of every Christmas song imaginable.

This year, as usual, I was dreading the holidays as fall leaves started to crinkle underneath my feet and a chill gathered in the air. I was grumbling to myself about how overwhelming all the family time would be for days on end with no real break from each other.

But then, on a beautiful Sunday morning in early October, my father died and that shattered what little bit of expectation I could have for the holiday season. This year, things will be different. It’ll be tinged with sadness, lots of heartache, memories that feel too painful to recall let alone enthusiastically remember.

I take solace in knowing that I am not alone. There are lots of families like mine who will be recalling past holiday seasons filled with warmth and forgiveness that, now, for the first time only represent loss. There will be so many of us mourning those who we miss and love and wish could still be here.

There is something beautiful, magnificent even, about how Black people around the globe bind together to celebrate the holiday season. And how often a lot of the nuances that make it Thanksgiving or Christmas for one family involve rituals that wouldn’t feel right if they didn’t happen. That prayer that sets the tone before the fellowship with aunties, uncles and cousins. Dishes that seem to always make an appearance on the table that if they were missing, there would be protests from multiple family members. How the dressing or mac and cheese are made — a practice shrouded in secrecy, save for the cooks toiling away starting in the wee hours of the morning.

We make our traditions and rituals holy and reverent as a connection to those who are still living — and those who have transitioned and look after us as ancestors. Thus, the holiday season becomes more than these things we habitually do. It is transformed into an extended song, a prayer, invoking those to continue to share space with us. To continue to bathe in the love vibrating through a living room, kitchen or entire home.

That is how we keep each other close: We never forget in anything we do.

Sierra King, a multidisciplinary artist and photographer in Atlanta, looks to the past for guidance, grounding, sometimes questions that can’t be fully answered. She encourages Black women to build their archives — whether that be a collection of snapshots, old journals, even video or voice memos. She calls this initiative Build Your Archive.

Her archival work has evolved through the years — since 2017 she’s been a part of the custodial archival team for Kathleen Neal Cleaver, whose papers and photographs Emory University acquired recently — but she continues to marvel at both the lessons and grace that looking back with intent and honor offers her. Especially when those lessons are blended with loss and grief.

“After my grandfather passed away last year in 2020, I found myself really overwhelmed with the responsibility of looking through and protecting his memories, library and collections,” she said. “I have become familiar with grief in that the archives is not a place to hide your history or reckon with past transgressions. It has become a place of joy, peace and reverence to where I am able to say, ‘These are my people and this is our place in history.’ ”

It’s a place that we can readily access when we’re ready or even when we’re not. Looking back takes courage. Remembering, pledging to do so, requires stillness.

And creativity. 

There is more than one way to look back and to see your ancestors standing in the gap for you. Especially when it comes to the holidays and food. King believes that recipes and cookbooks are treasures that can be looked at as archival, too.

Recipes scribbled on a scrap of paper that has faded over time and held together with a prayer. A cookbook with notes in the margins for additions or changes that worked better. That intuitive sense that you’re getting closer to making Big Mama’s oyster dressing because the smells transport you back to being a child, peering in curiosity on your tippy toes as you were shooed away to go play with your cousins. This sense of connectedness settling in on your chest means you’ve invoked them in the room with you.

“Think about recipes as a form of data and how certain dish codes should not be altered or you won’t hear the end of it until the next gathering,” King said. “And many of those rituals and recipes are passed down through oral tradition or by example. They are rarely documented, not because the family doesn’t deem its importance but because they understand the sacredness.”

For us of the African diaspora, food is more than something to be devoured at mealtime. What we cook and how we cook says something about our family of origin, of course — each unit has their way of doing things — but also points to a wider harkening of older traditions and customs that we have tried to keep alive. Despite the violence of chattel slavery. Despite being ripped apart from our families. Despite trying to survive in a new, unknown land where we had to relearn how to grow and feed ourselves in soil our hands didn’t know.

But we find a way to create anew from what has been scattered and stolen. Funeral food culture is a shining example of this. For most Black Americans, especially in the South, attending a repast is a rite of passage. I myself can recall vivid memories of dining in a dimly lit basement after an extended emotionally exhausting funeral service complete with folk catching the Holy Spirit and falling out in wooden pews. The promise of a good meal was what kept me from wanting to roll over and die myself.

Carole and Norma Jean Darden penned the cookbook Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family. Originally published in 1978, it consists of recipes, memoir and family history. An entire chapter is dedicated to funeral foods. The Dardens are descended from morticians who owned their own funeral business. They explain that the tradition of providing care and comfort to the bereaved in the form of food — casseroles, ham, turkeys, yeast rolls, cakes and pies — is a continuation of African tradition. The intent was to provide a “simple act of thoughtfulness to the living” in the form of clothing, items of value and most importantly, food. And to offset the physical and emotional loss in a practical way.

In the opening to that chapter they write, “In the Antebellum South, churches, fraternal orders and burial societies took over in a similar function and to a significant extent this still continues today.” Neighbors, work colleagues, friends pitched in where they could, comforting those who are mourning with the warmth of home-cooked food.

Sylvia Woods of Sylvia’s in Harlem, New York, is a representation of this. I remember her 1999 cookbook, Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, to Harlem, vividly because my mother had it in her collection. I recall being moved by the family stories that accompanied the recipes. Journalist Toni Tipton-Martin muses about what it means to look at recipes as archival knowledge, wisdom and love for those who created them in her award-winning books, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks and Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking, published in 2015 and 2019, respectively.

These connections to food, mourning and memory are what Scott Alves Barton, an adjunct assistant professor at New York University and Queens College, has studied extensively. Though the bulk of his scholarly research focuses on the diaspora in northern Brazil, the links — globally — are clear to him.

There are so many cultural activities that revolve around food. Weddings are one example. To Barton, there is something particular about the repast. Bigger than the food cooked with love. But the presence. And what that presence represents in such a tender, difficult time.

“The repast is really a signifier and different from a wedding,” Barton said. “Because with a wedding, the food is good but you’re thinking more about the ritual of the ceremony. Whereas with the repast, for me at least, you have the ritual tied directly to the funeral itself. But you dwell over the table much longer than you do for any other meal aside from Thanksgiving. And so, you’re aware of the foods and it’s often quiet depending on the uniqueness of the kin.”

The most profound part of the repast, according to Barton, is how the lingering serves as an acknowledgment. The sobering truth that someone is now gone. And to stay, to continue to eat whatever foods, to reminisce in lighthearted conversation about the dearly departed, is to both keep them alive and to find some way to cope.

“And so there was this magnetic force to stay even though staying meant communing with the idea that you had lost,” he said. “So, to me, it’s a very complex scenario where you don’t want to be there because you didn’t want to lose the person. But you don’t want to leave because you’re going to lose the person.” 

Barton has lost both his mother and father. Their deaths came with grief, of course. But also with lessons. One of the most special ones is how the simple act of doing something as essential and routine as eating keeps the memories of his parents alive and close to his heart.

For instance, his father loved fish. His mother? Not so much. But she would cook it every now and then because it was a love of her husband’s. Today, Barton sees eating fish as more than just eating, but a ritual. It is a way for him to sit at the feet of his father. When I talked to him earlier this month, he talked about fish.

“I’ve had fish three times this week,” he said, laughing. “And anytime I eat certain fish, my dad is with me. And I think it’s something we share together. What a gift.”

King believes we should look to the archives and what our ancestors have left behind. But also prepare for what those memories, and bonding with them, may bring up. We should radically care for ourselves in the process. With tenderness. 

“Take care of yourself and your body so that you are healthy and can enjoy timeless moments with your communities,” King said. “Make it a point to be proactive about not only your narrative being documented but also in protecting your body so that you can tell your most full and honest story.”

Liner Notes

Nneka M. Okona is a journalist and author of Self-Care for Grief,

Nneka M. Okona is a journalist and author of Self-Care for Grief. She lives in Atlanta.