Mourning Meal

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

 

 

You might think the proprietor of a restaurant called Hell's Kitchen would run a tongue-in-cheek sort of funeral catering operation. But Mitch Omer approaches death with the seriousness of a preacher. In fact, he is one.

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

Back in 1978, Omer answered an ad in the back of Rolling Stone for the church of Mother Earth in Monterey. He was issued a minister's license by mail and has since presided over some 35 weddings, but only one funeral--which he catered as well.

It was back in '91, when Omer was head chef at the original Pickled Parrot. The restaurant's Sysco rep, Matt Vertin, had become a good friend to many on the staff, and they were stunned when he died, in his 30s, of an obstructed bowel.

"Mattie was originally from Ely," Omer says. "So there were two ceremonies: a Catholic funeral and burial up there, and the service down here that we had in the dining room of the Pickled Parrot. I'm more spiritual than religious, and I don't necessarily pray, so the best I could offer up was a song on the guitar that I'd written myself. Then we served a buffet of Matt's comfort foods."

Since he's a food supplier (and son of an Ely restaurateur), Vertin's "comfort foods" included shrimp, ribs, and lobster. But Omer says the menu was just a few years ahead of the curve. At the two funerals he's catered recently, as the owner of Hell's Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, the bereaved requested a similar level of cuisine: fresh fruit, imported cheeses, beef tenderloin with garlic crostini. One of the most popular items, he said, was roasted new potatoes with asparagus and chipotle chiles.

"When you're catering a wake or a funeral, you don't want people to have to worry about anything but their loved one who's passed," Omer says. "You shouldn't be serving fancy, vertical-assembly food. Keep it simple; stay away from silverware. Have it finger food and room temperature. Because at a funeral, you want everything to be easy and you don't want people balancing a glass of wine and a napkin and a plate with a fork. The food should be comforting but in the background, so the guests can focus on things that are more important."

This is not just a professional concern for Omer. He's undertaken a personal study of death and funeral customs throughout history, from ancient Egyptian rituals to modern Native American rites. He's read up on embalming techniques, and though he's only 52 (and in excellent health), Omer plans to write his own obituary this year. Just in case....

 

 

Maybe truly great cooks all think alike. They're so accustomed to organizing the catered events of their lives, they insist upon doing so in death as well.

About a dozen years ago, a woman showed up at the Billman-Hunt funeral home in northeast Minneapolis with a tattered piece of paper and an unusual request. Her aunt had been part of a large Polish enclave in a rural area just outside Circle Pines, and she'd made a batch of coleslaw for every funeral that had occurred in their community for more than 30 years. Distant relatives who'd moved away traveled great distances to attend funerals where this coleslaw was served, whether or not they'd been close to the deceased. And no one else could make it. The woman had kept her recipe secret all her life; if she needed help with the chopping and preparation (for a very large funeral for instance), she would assign a few ingredients to several different people and throw in a couple of red herrings--items she wouldn't actually use--so they couldn't get together and come up with it.

On the occasion of her death, she had arranged for the recipe to be divulged, in part so it could be served at her funeral, but also so the tradition would continue. The day of her wake arrived; mourners assembled. Each was handed a memorial card. On the front was a religious image, on the inside was a prayer to St. Francis and a list of the woman's survivors. And on the back was her closely held recipe, set down in black type, printed horizontally as if on a recipe card.

"People were shocked," Hunt recalls. "They thought she'd go to her grave with that recipe."

The key, he says, was a combination of chopped chile peppers that gave her standard cabbage slaw a surprising tang. And it was, Hunt affirms, the best coleslaw he'd ever tasted (and after 40 years as a funeral director, he's a genuine expert): creamy, crisp, fresh, and pleasantly sharp. Unfortunately, though he has turned his files upside-down, neither Hunt nor his brother and business partner, Dick, has been able to find a single copy of the memorial/recipe card.

Sadly, the secret to the world's most perfect funeral food seems to have slipped underground again. •

American Legion Funeral Hot Dish

 

5 lbs.ground beef

1large onion, chopped

1 16-oz. bag frozen sliced carrots

1 16-oz. bag frozen cauliflower florets

1 16-oz. bag frozen chopped broccoli

1 50-oz. can of cream of mushroom soup

1 50-oz. can cream of chicken soup

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