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How we eat (or don’t) when we’re grieving
On food and funerals, the history of the avocado and very sour lollies
Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome to The Boil Up, The Spinoff’s weekly food newsletter. Written by me, Charlotte Muru-Lanning. It’s lovely to have you here!
For the past few weeks, I’ve been angsting about how to approach the topic of food as part of The Spinoff’s Death Week (happening now on the site). I wanted to explore Pākehā funeral food traditions but, as I mentioned casually to my editors last Thursday, while I'd been to plenty of tangi in recent years, it had been far longer since I’d attended what I suppose you’d call an “English-style funeral”. I wondered, did they still revolve around asparagus rolls?
No sooner had I said that to my editors and my phone started buzzing. It’s never a good sign when both your parents are trying to call you at the same time.
Since then, the world of funerals quickly transformed from a vague and distant memory to an immediate reality. From Friday last week to Monday morning I was camped up with my whānau at the aged care facility where my grandma lived. On Monday, my grandma died. For the past week, in the most personal and confronting of ways, I’ve been immersed in the business of death.
Between grieving a treasured grandparent, who I visited every Sunday, and the logistics of funeral planning, I have to admit that thinking through how to transform the experience into writing hasn’t been an immediate priority. Neither has food, and perhaps that’s a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to talking about food in this context.
I don’t remember much of what we ate during the three days we took turns keeping my grandma company and chatting in the corridor, and that might have been because we didn’t eat a lot. A cookie and flat white from the cafe up the road, a late dinner of a burger and deep-fried mussels, a handful of chips, lollies, vitamins, a banana on the way out of the house and desperate gulps of water when we remembered to hydrate.
While we sat with my grandma on Sunday, the latest episode of The Hui played quietly on the television in her room. A segment on tikanga-based alternatives to funeral homes discussed the way that professionalised funeral care (where a good deal of our funeral homes are owned by two massive Australian companies) has worked to disconnect whānau and communities from being able to administer the care required after death. Without this collective knowledge, we have little other option but to turn to these professionals, and that often comes with a high financial burden.
As I have been forced to discover this week, organising a funeral takes a significant amount of work, in a limited time frame, all the while dealing with grief. It's easy to see why kai can often feel like an afterthought. This is also where the differences between tangihanga and Pākehā funerals become stark. Perhaps it has to do with the evolution of Western attitudes to death into something both shameful and forbidden, as historian Phillipe Ariès discusses in his 1974 book Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present, that means Pākehā funerals are shrouded in ambiguity and confusion. Who is responsible for planning them? Who foots the bill? What is appropriate and who should be invited? How do we let them know? And, importantly for kai purposes, how many people are coming anyway?
I can’t help but compare this to tangi, where kai is a central and vital aspect. The hākari, or feast, is an important part of tangi where whānau pani, the bereaved relatives, are welcomed back among the living. It is both about remembering those who have passed through kai, but also about being together and looking towards the future. Hākari can be opulent affairs with bountiful kai moana, hāngi, fry bread, puddings and so on. At my grandpa’s tangi, we ate a dish he was renowned for making over the summer holidays: tinned plum pudding. There is time across the three days to prepare this kai and an army of ringawera who make this possible. As for the kai across the three days of the tangi, where an unknown number of groups could arrive and need to be fed, there is an information feedback loop to the kitchen about how many will need to be catered for. Flexibility is built into this manaakitanga.
When it comes to the Pākehā funeral spread, it’s not hard to see why people turn to catering, and a very specific style of catering at that. There is less community involvement in the logistics, and I can see the comfort in sticking to convention with plates of tiny two-bite sandwiches and tarts to be eaten from a napkin while standing. Even if the catering brochure I flicked through seemed to reflect a diversified palate of onion bhajis and individual boxes of pad thai – there remains a kind of sterility to this type of food.
When I think about my grandma, many of my memories are connected to food – not because she was an especially good cook or even personally interested in food, but because she was an endlessly generous grandmother who recognised kai was something I loved. She was never without a bottle of Rose’s lime cordial in her fridge – and growing up, I was allowed to pour as much into my glass as I liked. After her service, we’ll feast on cheese, cake, wine and of course, glasses of lime cordial. There won’t be any asparagus rolls.
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An inevitable and unavoidable topic in the venn diagram of food writing is the little chompy guys we eat with, teeth. Many of us live with the looming worry about visiting the dentist – a necessary and expensive evil that we all must eventually reckon with. This week, the Green Party announced its free dental care policy, citing the high costs in Aotearoa as being prohibitive for necessary care and going on to cause more serious health problems. The policy would be paid for by taxing the wealthiest New Zealanders – flossing them, perhaps – to swallow the cost. On TVNZ’s Breakfast, New Zealand Dental Association executive Mo Amso welcomed the policy but argued it doesn’t go far enough to address a more holistic view of a person's overall wellbeing. A poll earlier this year found three-quarters of voters back free universal dental care. Labour has, in its familiar way, ruled it out.
A well-timed baked treat, gifted by someone who cares, is one of the sweetest gestures out. That is the philosophy of the Good Bitches Baking (GBB) prison baking programme, which Alex Casey returned to this week after meeting them in 2018. GBB was born of a philosophy of helping those in need and has grown its volunteer base of bakers and baked-good deliverers around the country who deliver blueberry muffins, lemon meringues and fancifully-iced biscuits to those in the community who could do with a treat. The charity has recently started working with Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison and Christchurch Women’s Prison to allow those in prison to lovingly bake creations that are then delivered out in the community.
After consumption of the savoury pear-shaped fruit slowly grew over the 20th century, largely driven by the growing popularity of the exquisitely retro prawn cocktail, it was seven years ago when avocado sales really began to skyrocket. According to Countdown, that’s doubled in the last five years. Kim Knight investigates the hundred-year rise of the avocado in Aotearoa, from nouvelle cuisine to supermarket staple. Included in Knight’s article is a charming postscript of restaurant reviews from Papers Past that reference avocados – including that of an “avocado, camembert and strawberry filo parcel” from Christchurch restaurant No Red Jacket circa 1989. Yum?
Jordan Rondel, better known as The Caker has made a name for herself with her distinctive cakes – and with that, perhaps even altered the trajectory of cakes in Aotearoa. Rondel started her baking brand more than a decade ago in Tāmaki Makaurau and has steadily gained an international following. Last week, she announced her decade-old Karangahape Rd bakery will be closing its doors in early September. Rondel made the announcement on social media, saying that while it’s “heartbreaking” to be closing the store, “change opens doors to innovation and fresh possibilities, and I am confident that with more space in my brain, my future endeavours will bring even more value to you, my amazing Caker community.”
The weekly snack
Warheads Extreme Sour Hard Candy Mini, $2.99 from Lolly Shop (I bought mine from Stop N Save Superette in Mt Eden): I experienced a humbling moment two years ago in a rural lolly shop. It involved a single violet-flavoured sweet (Barnetts Vicious Violet Balls to be exact), a cautioning shopkeeper and an overly confident individual (me). It ended with a single tear, a lolly immediately spat into a napkin and a burnt tongue. Even more burnt was my pride. It seems my capacity for sourness has deteriorated as childhood favourites like TNTs, Zombie Chews, regular Warheads and, at times, straight citric acid have become less regular parts of my diet. And yet, earlier this week, in a desperate attempt to revisit the acidic-high days of my youth, I reached for this nifty tin of lemon, blue raspberry, watermelon, black cherry and green apple sours at the dairy. In their tin, they clattered at the bottom of my handbag before making a debut as the perfect energy-giving midnight hospital snack to share with my family. Small enough to dissipate any intimidation and just sour enough to keep us awake – winning over my sleepy mum and brother. A point deducted for the design of the tin, which would benefit greatly from a lid that stays shut, but these were a welcome novelty in an otherwise sombre setting. 9/10
Talk next week!
Hei kōnā mai, Charlotte