The leaves are continuing to fall, the pumpkins are still around, and the thoughts are moving slowly from Halloween that just went by to Thanksgiving day that is fast approaching. Halloween is celebrated as the Day of the Dead, and Thanksgiving reflects on what we are thankful for. But, how do people remember the dead? Recently, I read a blog post by a food historian and scholar about dining with the dead1, and upon writing a comment, I started to think about my own experiences.
I can remember the images and sounds from as far back as my earliest memories of childhood. It was either during the death anniversary of a person, or during a gathering of family and friends when everybody spoke fondly of the dead, mostly the recently deceased but also ancestors from a distant generation. Sometimes it was just a regular day with some family, and my grandmother would still encourage the practice during lunch. Regardless of how elaborate the meal was, on a plate or leaf, we would add small amounts of food and leave it out in the open courtyard of the house. We would then call out to the birds. I remember being shy initially but as I heard the uninhibited voices of family calling out together, and encouraging me to think of my ancestors as I call out, I would slowly join in.
One of the staples that we would feed the birds was a simple combination of yellow lentils and rice with a drizzle of ghee on top.
Here’s a method to make yellow lentils:
Yellow lentils (called toor dhal in an Indian store) - fresher batches of lentils cook faster. Presoaking in water also facilitates cooking.
Ghee (clarified butter) or butter
Salt to taste
Curry leaves (optional)
Cumin seeds (optional)
Mustard seeds (optional)
Boil the lentils with enough water, a few cloves of crushed garlic, and an optional pinch of turmeric until soft and tender. If a pressure cooker is used the lentils and water are used in the proportion one to three, and cooked till soft. Using a blender or just the back of a spoon some of the cooked lentils can be blended to a smooth consistency before mixing with the rest. Just before serving, heat butter or ghee in a small pan, add the optional seasoning ingredients, and when they start to splutter and let out their aroma, add the hot mixture to the lentils. Mix, and serve as soup or with rice, finished with a drizzle of ghee on the top.
The relationship between food and the dead is expressed in many ways across different cultures1,2. Sometimes it is seen just after a death, and sometimes during the anniversary of the dead; sometimes it occurs as a picnic by the burial site, and sometimes at home during a casual family dinner; sometimes it feels heavy, and sometimes it feels lighter with the benefit of time; and, sometimes, as it was for me growing-up, it was experienced when I called out to the birds, a form of communication regardless of what it might really mean, with the people I never met, or recall meeting, yet those whose personalities were alive through the stories and the food associations. In this sense, yellow lentils with rice or parupppu sadam as it is called in tamil, is food for me in more ways than one.
- Dining with the Dead, blog post by Rachel Laudan
- Food: The History of Taste edited by Paul Freedman