Funeral food: Stick a fork in it

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Contributing writer
  • Updated: September 21, 2012 - 7:57 AM

Old-style funeral food is giving way to catered affairs as tastes change and volunteers to prepare the meals are harder to find.

Photo: Eddie Thomas, Star Tribune

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Funeral food was as heavy as it was predictable where Janet Letnes Martin grew up in rural North Dakota. "We had to feed the men who came in from the fields for the service," she said. The co-author of the books that have been adapted into the long-running "Church Basement Ladies" musicals, Martin remembers the standard spread, the handiwork of bustling Lutheran matrons.

"We always had hot dish, pickles, red Jell-O and cake. Sandwiches. Minced ham on white, egg salad on wheat and Cheez Whiz with olives on rye."

Now 65, Martin is surprised by what is served at funerals she attends.

"Salads!" she exclaimed. "They are into trendy food in the Cities."

In the Upper Midwest, a post-funeral feed has long been expected. It provides a time for attendees to offer one-on-one condolences to the grieving family, and for relatives to extend their thanks to those who came to pay their respects.

But the tradition is in transition. While old-school funeral food remains deeply lodged in Minnesota's DNA, a rising number of funeral meals are prepared and served by a caterer rather than a lady in an apron in a fellowship hall.

One reason is a dwindling number of volunteers on church funeral committees, those invariably female workers ready to spring into action on short notice and spend half a day cooking, serving and cleaning up. Longtime workers are aging and not always being replaced by their daughters.

"We have a strong human need to be together when there's loss," said Bob Albers, distinguished visiting professor of pastoral care at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton. "Fellowship can be a time of healing. But churches are grappling with the issue of volunteerism. Women used to look for things to do during the day. Now they're working. They're not unwilling; they simply don't have time for that kind of service."

At the same time, heightened standards for taste and quality have diminished the regard some hold for classic fare.

"They say, 'I'm too much of a foodie for that funeral food,'" said Jennifer Harding, catering manager for Lunds & Byerly's. "If ever people need comfort food it's when they're grieving, but some people find it with focaccia instead of dollar buns."

"Funeral food has gone fancy," agreed Jayne Kenney, who operates One West Catering in Minneapolis. She rented a storefront in Minneapolis earlier this year to handle her growing business.

"I'd say 75 percent of what we do is funerals, sometimes three or four a day," she said. "Most services are at 11, so they want lunch. We do gourmet wraps, salads and dessert. If it's an evening funeral, they like dessert buffet -- cookies, brownies, bars. We offer eight kinds of cupcakes."

Kenney and her crew carry in to churches, but more often they bring their premade platters to halls at funeral homes.

"The mortuaries are set up for caterers," she said.

All 16 of the Washburn-McReavy funeral chapels have adjoining onsite reception and dining rooms, made available to families following services.

"Food is a bigger deal now," said Bill McReavy, president of the 155-year-old business. "More people want something extraordinary. When families make arrangements, we show them menus from caterers we've worked with, ones we know do a nice job, and they choose. This is a service; we don't take a cut."

The onsite option is often favored by families unconnected to a church, synagogue or mosque, reflecting the growing number of Americans without formal religious affiliation. In a recent Gallup poll, 15 percent of respondents said they have no religious identity, the highest number in the 60 years that Gallup has surveyed Americans about faith. In 1951, only 1 percent of those polled did not identify with a religion.

"People who don't have a relationship with a church still need a facility to accommodate friends and family," McReavy said.

Finding a gathering spot for the post-funeral meal when a church hall is not an option has become part of the job of making arrangements.

"We help them find a place. We do the research," said Steve Branstad, funeral director at Gill Brothers Funeral and Cremation Services. "We've set them up at the Knights of Columbus and the VFW."

"Families don't want to make a thousand calls," said Harding of Lunds & Byerly's. "We can provide china, linens, flowers, chafing dishes, servers, even a DJ, and it's one credit-card transaction."

When Mitch Omer caters a funeral reception, he brings more than food. The owner of Hell's Kitchen arrives with flowers, boxes of tissues and votives.

"I'll put out a galaxy of candles on a buffet table. It needs to look special," he said.

Omer asks family members about the favorite foods of the deceased and works them into the menu.

"I like finger food," he said. "People want to shake hands and hug. They can't circulate when they're carrying a wine glass, a plate, utensils and a napkin. I keep it light; friends bring heavy food to the house, hot dish and meatloaf. The family is hungry for something resh."

But even the time-honored practice of dropping off a covered dish when there's a death appears to be shifting. Harding said more customers purchase what she calls "memorial meals" rather than whipping up a homemade offering.

"Nothing says 'Sorry for your loss' like a meat tray," she said.

Kevyn Burger of Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.

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