From Commemoration to Family Meals: An Introduction

This project began in a senior seminar on the anthropology of food with Professor Mary Beth Mills at Colby College in the Spring of 2015.  A weekly response paper to David E. Sutton’s 2014 ethnography Secrets from a Greek Kitchen had me considering food traditions in my own family.  Whenever my mother’s family gets together (specifically my mom, my Uncles Tommy and Chucky, and my Aunt Denise), my mom cooks a meal that my grandmother used to make before she passed away in 1997.  However, it’s not just the food that interested me: it was the nostalgic arguments they had with one another about how closely my mom could replicate their “Mommy’s” salad or sauce.  Unsurprisingly, my mom’s cooking never quite compares. But she keeps trying, keeps having the same conversation with her siblings, keeps feeling the same disappointment, and keeps missing her Mommy.  

Fantastically, I imagined reasons of why my mom would keep doing this, other than the obvious fact that she misses her mom, and cooking the food brings back positive memories of mother.  What if my mom actually felt that she perfectly replicated my grandmother’s food? Would she feel closure? Is that even possible? Is perfection my mom’s goal? How important is it that my mom’s siblings are there too? The more I thought about it, the more I considered the similarities that my mom’s family meals share with a seance, conjuring the presence of her dead mother.  Having several friends and family who have lost loved ones, I thought a similar dinner might be a constructive way of dealing with their loss.

My idea was to ask some of my friends and family to hold dinners over the summer of 2015 to commemorate a loved one who had passed away.  Participants would consider every aspect of the meal in commemorating their lost loved ones: choose to cook food that is significant to the memory of the the loved one, whether it be because they cooked that meal, loved eating that food, or even if the relation is inexplicable; invite other people who can also relate stories for the commemoration; have the meal at a place special to the loved one who is being commemorated, whether it be at the dinner table, a local park, or at a nearby restaurant; incorporate tools (dishes, pans, utensils, etc.) that either belonged to the loved one or that holds some other significance to the loved one.  

I initially planned to study the intersection of food and memory as a means of collectively re-presenting a passed loved one and coping with the involved emotions  However, I was naive to think that things would go as planned.  Not that participants (my family and friends) were uncooperative, but interactions between friends and family naturally and regularly veered from the very structured dinners that I had prescribed.  I thought it best to let the dinners evolve into whatever they wanted to.  The dinners had lives of their own and each was completely different.  The only similarities were the instructions that I prompted the participants.  None of the dinners became very emotional. Conversation was always upbeat and positive, even when it focused on the loved ones who had passed away.  It seemed that although I explicitly set out to focus on the past, the dinners that I created focused most strongly on those who were present at the dinner table.  I had to shift my anthropological focus accordingly.

After some correspondence with Professor Mills who has helped me formulate my ideas alongside this project’s creation, I realized that the best way to frame my understanding of these meals was through the lens of the family meal.  Although the family meal functioned differently in each dinner, the family meal set the basis for the participants to build and strengthen relationships with one another.  This shared experience gave space for people to feel comfort, empathy, and love with one another.  The idea of a family meal is not revolutionary but is actually ordinary and, to many people, unexciting.  However, sharing food with friends and family is one of the most human experiences, and therefore falls squarely in the academic domain of anthropology and warrants serious study for understanding the ways in which people develop relate to one another.