Archeological studies in Ukraine indicate that 32,000 years ago, humans practiced cannibalism as a part of funeral rites.
Food has historically been a part of our funeral rituals. South American Indians grind up the ashes and bones of dead parents and mix them in a soup which all their relatives share, a way of incorporating the ancestor into one’s own body.
The idea of eating as a memorial to the dead is very much part of contemporary society. A ritual meal can be a shared community experience that supports the grieving, memorializes the dead, and, through eating, symbolizes the continuing vitality of the mourners.
Another way of honoring those who have gone before us is to cook the meals they taught us to prepare.
One of the few television programs I watch is the Food Network’s “Chopped,” a competition among professional chefs. It seems that four of five contestants credit their mothers, fathers or grandmothers with sparking their passion for preparing food.
It’s certainly true in my life.
Our meatless, dairy-less Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner features my mother’s cabbage-filled pyrohy (pierogies, as they’re more popularly known in this country) and her cabbage soup—capusta.
Our Christmas feasting is an ancestral mélange:
- My late wife’s breakfast of Italian sausage and scrambled eggs, established as a Nativity tradition by her mother
- Nana’s afternoon course of herb-roasted chicken and potatoes
- My own flaming plum pudding—derived from Jo Anne’s Irish ancestry—as the centerpiece of dessert
Robin Fox, writing for Britain’s Social Issues Research Center, points out that while feasts “serve a practical purpose in feeding the guests, they also serve the ritual purpose of uniting the celebrants in the common act of eating, with all its rich, symbolic associations.”
At this time of year when we remember the birth of Christ, I’m reminded of something else, as recorded in the twenty-first chapter of John’s Gospel:
Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee's sons, and two others of his disciples.
Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We also will come with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to them, "Children, have you caught anything to eat?" They answered him, "No."
So he said to them, "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something." So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.
So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord." When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.
The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.
When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.
Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you just caught."
So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.
Jesus said to them, "Come, have breakfast." And none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they realized it was the Lord.
Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.
This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.
Breakfast on the beach was Christ’s way of telling his “children” that the family was together again.