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Funeral food

Funeral food Funeral food

The Table

“Ham buns, hot dish, jello salad and cake”, I told my mother. We were on our way to my Aunt Della’s funeral at the Holway Lutheran Church and I was reciting for her the spread that would be awaiting us in the church basement after the committal service in the little cemetery. In a previous life I had spent four years presiding at Lutheran funerals, so I had a fair idea of the likely menu. I was looking forward to it.

When the people of the congregation I had served in northwest Minnesota were putting on the dog for their annual Midsummer Festival or some other celebration, they would make something of their Scandinavian ancestors--lutefisk, lefse, rommegrot, sandbakkels, rosettes, krumkake. The women labored untold hours to present a feast from the recipes of their ancestors. My job was to give a quick prayer and be a good sport about trying everything. And not snicker audibly when the Polish gentleman who had married into the church observed the resemblance of rommegrot to wallpaper paste.

The holiday fare was OK, but it was the funeral food that I really liked. I guess that means that my tastes are pretty basic, since it didn’t matter whether the deceased was young, old, rich, poor, a pillar of the community or a reclusive bachelor--their funeral lunch was dependent on the abilities of the women of the church to affordably feed a crowd of people on a few days’ notice. It had to be food that anyone could make and that everybody liked.

The only person I remember who had an aversion to hot dish was a clergy colleague, who refused to eat it on the grounds that he wasn’t sure what was in it. But he also insisted on being seated with his back to a wall so no one could sneak up behind him, so I’m not sure his resistance to casseroles was entirely rational.

Some years later and in a whole new life, I filled my plate in another church’s parish hall, in the role of mourner rather than preacher as my Aunt Della was remembered. And yes, I was correct in my prediction--hot dish, jello salad and cake filled the tables.

My aunt had filled her dining table with similarly good basic food all the years of her marriage to my Dad’s brother Norman. I remember my brother Mark describing Norman and Della to someone who had never met them. “Salt of the earth”, he said, “They were salt of the earth kind of people.”

As a young man Norman rode the rails from his boyhood home in rural Wisconsin out to Seattle, then brought Della back to the farm with him. She later confided to my mother that she was so homesick in those early days that she would have gone back home to Seattle, if she could have afforded to during the Depression. But she couldn’t, so she stayed to raise a family, run the farm and grow old with Norman on land a country mile from the churchyard where they would be laid to rest.

I can still remember the goodness and simplicity of meals at their home. Adults and children crowded around a table weighted with the meat, potatoes and vegetables of their farm, a glass of fresh milk at each place setting. Della was a good cook and we were eager to dig in, but rules of courtesy prevailed: a pause for grace, the orderly passing of serving dishes, an expectation of Please, May I and Thank You from the youngsters present. Dignity and joy presided at Norman and Della’s table, and I am glad to have visited there.

Tuna Casserole

Tuna casserole is the king of all hot dishes. This recipe is one of my mother’s. It seems odd to think that there was once a time when tuna casserole was new on the scene, and one young bride was requesting the recipe from another. The recipe is not in my mother’s handwriting, although she has added the notes “Shirl Xmas ‘47” and “good”. From this I deduce that my mother was at a holiday gathering in 1947, where her cousin Shirley presented tuna casserole. Mom liked it and requested the recipe.

Cook, drain and place in a buttered casserole dish:

Package of egg noodles


1 cup cooked carrots 1 cup canned peas 1 can tuna or equivalent amount of chicken 1 cup mushroom soup, undiluted Salt + pepper to taste Enough milk to moisten well Combine everything thoroughly and grate some cheese on top. Bake at 350° until hot.

Cousin Shirley adds the note: “This goes a long way-good for buffet suppers.”

Sally Rasmussen lives in rural Taylor County with her husband, Tom.