September 26, 2014

Food’s Cultural Role In Comforting

compassionNot so much about business today as this article is about food in general.  The idea for this article stemmed from some terrible news that a neighbor of mine was going in for brain surgery this week due to a brain tumor.  He’s a young guy (or, more rightly, he’s my age so I’ll call him young) and he and his wife have two little children – one of whom isn’t even in kindergarten yet.  He’s incredibly fit and healthy and is the type of neighbor who knows everyone on the street and is always willing to lend a hand or watch over your house and water your lawn while you’re away.   While you never want to hear about tragedy striking anyone’s family, it seemed especially cruel for this family so I did the only thing I knew how to do – I cooked, and baked, and cooked some more.

It’s not the first time that this has been my go-to response.  In fact, in January another friend had a ‘freak’ heart attack (I use the word freak because this guy is a triathlete and has none of the genetic markers that you might think would make him more likely to have a heart attack).  He ended up fully recovering but two days after he was out of the hospital I showed up with so many freezable-dinners that I think he and his wife must still be eating their way through them.

So in the midst of my latest baking frenzy I wondered if this reaction was an anomaly or something more common.  Certainly in the 1950’s it wasn’t unheard of for a housewife to don an apron and bake a cake when they heard someone in the neighborhood was ill, but I’m about as far from a 1950’s housewife as one can get.  Do people still do this sort of thing?

I did a little bit of research and soon found out that the role of food in comforting friends, family, and yes even neighbors, is has strong roots in cultures around the world.  From the Jewish tradition of Seudat Havra’ah where the community provides food for the mourners, to the Midwestern ‘funeral potatoes’ (also known as Mormon potatoes if you grew up in an area with strong Mormon churches), to the slaughtering of goats or cattle, which are highly prized animals, in West African villages.  While not an anthropologist, this seems to suggest to me this very fundamental desire to help nourish – to literally feed and keep up the strength – of those who are suffering.   We all want to do something when tragedy hits and while we may not be able to lesson their worries or ease their sorrows, we can put food on their table.

So let me ask you, does your community have traditions around food when it comes to comforting those who are suffering?  Are there particular dishes that are common in your region?  And lastly, is this ‘bringing over of food’ something that still happens?