Food, Memory, and Ritual Making: Bring on the Cookies and Rhubarb!

I was reminded again last week… by eating an apricot from a tree planted almost 60 years ago in the artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s garden in Abiququ, NM ….  that the shared human experience of preparing and eating food in our culture found in community, gathering, and hospitality, is ever present in our lives, at the end of our lives, and even in our grief ritual making.

It’s not just around the holidays. It’s in the every day, if you let yourself be in the moment.

I’m pretty sure Georgia had workers plant her apricot, mulberry and apple trees, and the beautiful currant bushes that are still part of her garden thatflourishes with the help of workers, third-generation Abiququ gardeners tilling the ground and planting every spring. Food is in memory making, and helps us in remembrance on special anniversaries and in the every day. From how mother cooked collard greens, to dad’s favorite candy, grandmother’s favorite pie, grandfather's cooked chestnuts, to how parents and grandparents made Sunday dinners after church, our culture is mixed, stirred, blended, and whisked with food and memory.

Go grab a cup of coffee, tea or whatever your daily ritual is, maybe a piece of pie or cobbler, and enjoy these three food memories of mine from being a hospice chaplain, inspired by eating an apricot in a garden.

-One of my very first patients was a woman dying of breast cancer that had traveled throughout her body. I visited every week in her small apartment in an independent living facility, and she would immediately stick a bag ofBigelow green tea in a cup of water and put it in the microwave for me when I walked in. There were always cookies too. My mantra early on was to never say no to the gift of food and drink, even if it was on call in the middle of the night. While waiting for the mortuary, I would always say yes, yes to coffee, yes to pizza, yes to anything that was given to me. Blessed with a strong constitution and an ability to sleep even after coffee drinking at night, I felt that the gift of hospitality was a gift I could never say no to, especially when someone had just died. I look back on those gifts of hospitality and welcome, toward me as the stranger, as some of the great lessons of hospice chaplaincy.

We drank many cupfuls of green tea and munched on many cookies as our time together continued over the months. Over tea, we had the good fortune to have endless subjects to talk about… her strong faith, her wishes at the end of her life, her painting, her favorite text from the Hebrew Bible, where was God in all of this for her. The afternoons I spent with her… she a teacher to me …. are some of the most memorable. To this day, I have notes in my Bible with her name written by me and the date of when we talked of favorite scripture that I read to her.

-As an on call chaplain when I worked five nights a week, I attended dozens of deaths of patients and families I did not know, and they didn’t know me. I walked into their houses as a stranger and left several hours later, frequently to hugs of gratitude and thanksgiving. On one night I attended the death of person from the large Hmong community in north Denver. After the hospice nurse did his work, and left, I stayed with the widow, and a daughter and waited for the mortuary to arrive. His daughtertold me the story of her parents coming to America, their long marriage, and the stories of her siblings growing up. It’s now maybe 4am. By 6 am, the mortuary has still not shown up, but people are arriving. Friends bringing stalks of vegetables. Rice cookers arrive and rice starts to cook. Platters of meat come into the kitchen, now bustling with women preparing vast amounts of food. There are now about 50 people in the front room, visiting with the family, moving about or simply sitting and waiting. Finally, the mortuary arrived, and has to slowly bring the gurney into the living room making way like how the Red Sea parted. The patriarch of this family and community was taken from his home to the funeral home where arrangements for his service would be planned the following day. As I gathered my coat, a son came over to me and said, “Pastor, please stay for the meal. Please eat first.” And I did. I was taken to the front of this long line, saying thank you along the way. The women had cooked this massive meal in just a few hours, and I was gifted some incredible food. It would have been rude to say no and leave, especially when gatherings at death are so important for the beloved communtiy, when the sacred and holy is part of nourishing the spirit of those who grieve. So I said yes to the invitation to eat rice, meat, and vegetables, delicious desserts, and yes, to tea.

-I love rhubarb. Imagine my delight to discover a 95 year old patient who still lived independently at home in North Denver who loved rhubarb as much as I did. He might have loved it even more. He had his own rhubarb plant in his backyard and the stalky pink wonder found in dessert sauces, cobblers, and pies became the favorite subject of shared recipes when I first started visiting. We ended up visiting for more than a year, which is a bit unusual and rare for patients in hospice.

We talked about his travels in books, the work that he had now retired from 30 years ago, his life alone, his growing up in a family of deprivation, and his beloved home, a trailer that was paid for in full. I brought him rhubarb. Harvested his own rhubarb for him. Cooked a cobbler or two for him, and over the months that turned into a year, I grew to look forward to our time together huddled around the heater in winter eating hard candy, searching for the very beginnings of sprouting rhubarb together in his garden in the spring, and sitting in the blasting air conditioner in the Denver summer heat, chatting about his life, and most importantly the end of his life.  He lived very frugally as he didn’t have much. He never married. Never had children. But his love of reading had taken him around the world. His love of rhubarb was a language we shared, and ate together... many times in a cobbler with ice cream!

As I go search for some frozen rhubarb (harvested by an old friend from her garden for my birthdy this year!) in my freezer for a cobbler I'm going to make right now, and brew some Caregiver Love Herbal Tea, I invite you to ponder the food rituals in your life that makes you, you. Write a poem about one of them on how it makes meaning in your life. Share it if you like, or not. Hold onto it though.

It's in these sacred places where we can go back to, and revisit again a place or a beloved one in memory and food,  and can feel completely nourished and fed again.

May the food and memory be blessed.






Nancy Niero