Mourning Meal

What to serve when interring a loved one, and other culinary tips from the afterworld

Should you drop dead in Montgomery, Minnesota, or the surrounding area (including Kilkenny, Waterville, and New Prague), you're in for a real treat. Or rather, your friends and family are. Because on the occasion of your burial, they most likely will gather en masse at the American Legion Hall (Post 79), where manager JoAnn Petricka will serve up a roasting pan full of her famous funeral hot dish.

"I always give people a choice of eight or nine things," says Petricka. "But I'd say more than 90 percent of them say, 'We have to have the funeral hot dish. Grandma--or whoever--would want it.'"

Last year, Petricka staged more than 55 funerals and estimates she made the hot dish some 47 times, including three times alone in the week before Christmas. Her recipe serves 50 people and costs about $35 to make; she charges families only for the cost of the food, so an American Legion funeral meal works out to be exactly 70 cents per person. Not bad, particularly as Petricka has worked for 10 years on perfecting the recipe.

Taters to die for: Hell's Kitchen's Mitch Omer
Bill Kelley
Taters to die for: Hell's Kitchen's Mitch Omer

Her predecessor, she says, used to stir all the chow mein noodles in, "so the hot dish got kind of mushy. But I save out a bag to use on top so it's kind of crunchy. Even the little kids love it. And the funeral directors come and ask for it, too. If they do a funeral and it's not here, they're kind of disappointed."

Petricka recites the recipe from memory. "Now this serves a lot," she warns, then launches into a description of how she browns five pounds of ground beef with chopped onion and pounds it all with a potato masher. She lists the bags of carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. "You can buy a California medley where they're all included up there in the Cities," she explains. "But down here, the only way we can get the vegetables is separate."

Then she gets to the soy sauce: a quarter-cup. "Yup, it's a lot," Petricka says. "Of course, I don't use any extra salt in the hot dish, because the soy sauce kind of takes care of that."

 

That's Montgomery. Herein the Twin Cities, the trend in funeral food is moving away from the hot dish, toward apricot-coriander meatballs and crème brûlée.

"It's no longer about Jell-O and casserole and five different kinds of cake," says Colette Flynn, owner of Catered by Colette in St. Louis Park and primary event planner for the Washburn-McGreavy Funeral Home in Edina. "Today, people expect casual, upscale fare at funerals. We offer a chicken pasta salad with grapes and mandarin oranges and hot pork tenderloin on croissants with honey mustard. Our garlic-pecan stuffed mushrooms are very popular. And our desserts are all homemade: strawberry-layered whipped cream cake, pies, éclairs, tiramisu."

This sort of fare can add up. Pricing begins with a basic $6.50-per-person package that includes coffee, tea, lemonade, and upward of half a dozen kinds of bars and cookies. Catered by Colette adds on $2.50 for each mid-list additional item--vegetable pinwheels, fresh fruit, chicken wings--and slightly more ($3 to $4 a head) for delicacies such as prime rib. A gourmet funeral dinner comes in at about $18 to $20 per guest.

The biggest challenge for caterers, Flynn says, is that people tend to die whimsically, and often meals for up to 200 people must be planned, cooked, transported, and served with only one or two days' notice. Once, she received a call on Saturday morning from a family whose loved one had died unexpectedly; the funeral would be held Sunday afternoon and they wanted a five-course Italian feast for 50 following the service. Flynn called every chef she knew and asked them to pitch in. Within 36 hours she was at the mortuary unloading linen tablecloths, candelabras, and three different kinds of hand-rolled pasta.

"They brought lots of wine," she recalls. "It was a lovely, delicious, absolutely outrageous meal."

Later, when two of the mourners got married, they hired Flynn to cater a larger and even more extravagant reception. And while she was happy to get the business, Flynn claims she's happier working with the bereaved than with other, more traditional clients.

"Serving funerals actually is my favorite kind of business," she says. "I don't mean to sound macabre, but I'm old enough that I'm no longer freaked out about death. And these are events where the people are looking for comfort; they won't throw a fit if a fork is placed the wrong way on a table, the way they will at a wedding."

This is why, lately, Flynn and her staff, including her daughter, Lisa, have spent more time at Washburn-McGreavy than in the mansions, country clubs, and museums habituated by most high-end caterers. After a 10-hour day in which they'd served two funerals back to back, mother and daughter wandered into the showroom. Exhausted and a little punchy, Flynn found a beautiful polished casket with a "memory drawer."

"It's a little built-in drawer where a grandchild might put a letter, or an avid golfer could have some balls and tees," she explains. "I told Lisa that's the one I want. And at my funeral I want it to be open, filled with bars and cookies and a sign that says, 'Catered by Colette, Bars to Die For.'"

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