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.
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. Here in 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.'"
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.
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
1 large 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
1 bunch celery, chopped
1/4 c. soy sauce
1 t. white pepper
3 12-oz. bags chow mein noodles
Fry hamburger and chopped onion in a large cast-iron pan, breaking it up into small pieces with a potato masher. Place in a large roaster. Mix frozen vegetables, soups, chopped celery, soy sauce, and pepper in a bowl. Pour into roaster and blend with meat. Fold in two bags of chow mein noodles, cover, and bake at 325 degrees for 75 minutes. Remove from oven. Sprinkle remaining bag of chow mein noodles on top. Put cover back on and bake another 15 minutes. Serves 50.
Hell's Kitchen's Roasted New
Potatoes with Sesame Asparagus
and Chipotle Dipping Sauce
1 lb. red potatoes
3 T. olive oil
3 T. seasoned salt, such as
Montreal Steak or Montreal Chicken seasoning
1 lb. thin asparagus spears
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
2 T. lime juice
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2 T. coarse-grained mustard
2 T. fresh garlic, minced
2 T. fresh cilantro, minced
1 T. ground cumin
1 c. mayonnaise
3 T. sesame oil
3 T. toasted sesame seeds
Rinse potatoes in warm water and pat dry. Cut into quarters and place in medium-size mixing bowl. Add the olive oil and toss to coat well. Sprinkle with seasoned salt and toss again to cover evenly. Spread potatoes on a cookie sheet and place in 375-degree oven. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned. Remove from oven and allow to come to room temperature. Trim thick end of stalks of asparagus and blanch in boiling salted water. Remove immediately and shock in cold water. Pat dry and set aside. In a food processor, purée the chipotle pepper, lime juice, balsamic vinegar, mustard, garlic, cilantro, and cumin. Place these ingredients in a large mixing bowl, add mayonnaise, and whisk together until blended. To serve, place roasted potatoes on large platter with a cup in the center for sauce. Arrange blanched asparagus around the other end of platter. Drizzle sesame oil over asparagus and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Place chipotle mayonnaise in cup. Serves four.
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