Food and Loss During the Holiday Season

By: Kelly Spivey

Holidays evoke significant memories.

For me, there are too many to count: my mom’s kitchen, stacked with tins of sausage balls, cheese straws, and brownies. I think of the Christmas cookies my grandmother baked every year, which I now receive via mail from my aunt, who took over the tradition when my grandmother passed. Then there are the candy orange slices I ate late into the evening on the Christmas I spent sick, sitting in my mom’s lap in a rocking chair, watching QVC. Some memories come with tidings of comfort and joy while others are tinged with grief. The complex feelings that surround loved ones we have lost or changing traditions often arise during the holiday season, when we are expected to be our most cheerful. 

Food, too, is a steady companion to grief in both its presence and its absence. My Family Recipe, a collaboration between HRN and Food52, has explored the intersections of food and family. Host Arati Menon speaks with essayists from the beloved Food52 column, often inviting family members to join the conversation. Several guests of My Family Recipe have navigated grieving in their own ways, reminding us that we all need different things to heal. For Joelle Zarcone, it was learning to make her mom’s Sunday sauce. For Gary Schiro, it was the realization that when he struggled one morning to make his mother’s meatballs, she wouldn’t be there to right the ship. For Lisa Ruland, it was setting her own grief aside to make a birthday cake for her future step-daughter, Margot. Grief comes in waves, often when we least expect it.

Sometimes it’s easier to cook (or not cook) than address our own emotions. Cooking is a form of storytelling, where individual ingredients come together to create something more than the sum of its parts. Bobbie Comforto, grief counselor and co-host of HRN’s Processing is quick to remind us, “it doesn't mean that when we have a loss, this holiday is this way. It doesn't mean it's always going to be this way. It shifts and changes, and we have to just know this is now.” Bobbie hosts this show about the intersection of food and grief with her daughter, chef Zahra Tangorra. 

Zahra adds, “one of those ways that you can retell a story and in retelling a story, process and deal with a grief experience or a traumatic experience is cooking. It's reconjuring a memory. It's building a new story about a new tradition you're making for yourself after the loss of a loved one.” Stories aren’t meant to be isolated and passive within our memories; they are living, breathing, and changing. “Memory is kind of one dimensional,” Bobbie adds, “I think when you're cooking something, you almost feel their presence. You don't just feel their absence.” 

Like all stories, there are times when stillness is required. Lisa Ruland’s experience was one of indifference towards food: “Food didn’t matter anymore. There's all kinds of physical changes that happen in the grieving process. And I really lost my appetite.” The act of not cooking is equally as valuable. Dishes that may have significant emotional connections often appear during the holidays, and the choice not to make or eat those dishes also creates space for loved ones we have lost. During a time of year when we are most pressured to behave a certain way, it’s important to remember, as Lisa Ruland says, “your life will continue to always have meaning and your loss will have meaning. It'll never be OK, but it will have meaning.” 

Below, find a playlist of episodes of My Family Recipe and Processing that continue this conversation.

Processing: Episode 83: Food & Grief: Bobbie and Zahra talk with each other about several beautiful and interesting traditions from around the globe, where food and grief collide.

My Family Recipe Episode 1: Motherhood and Chocolate Cake with Lisa Ruland: A story about how chocolate cake - a festive treat if there ever was one - brought about unlikely healing through grief. Lisa Ruland is a food writer, professional baker, and the curator of The Food + Grief Project. She talks about her relationship to food after the tragic loss of her husband, how she found connection while mourning, and how a chocolate birthday cake catalyzed what is now an honored family tradition. Her step-daughter Margot joins the conversation to share memories and talk about mothers lost and found.

Processing Episode 39: Let’s Talk about Holiday Grief: Bobbie and Zahra talk to each other about the complicated grief that can often accompany the holiday season. They cover how to handle feeling overwhelmed, strategies for coping with being triggered and the significance of food during this time of the year. Sending love to all of you out there, this week and all weeks. 

My Family Recipe Episode 5: Baked Ziti is a Love Language with Joelle Zarcone: When Joelle Zarcone was growing up, her mom made bolognese sauce every Sunday. Even after leaving home, Joelle’s mom would bring along her wooden spoon for visits, leaving her daughter’s freezer well stocked with sauce. After unexpectedly losing her mother to illness, Joelle had to figure out how to make the sauce for herself for the first time. This story about family tradition, grief, and a mother’s love touched many readers who share their thoughts in the second half of the episode.

Processing Episode 48: Let’s Talk About Nostalgia: Bobbie and Zahra are talking about our most deeply nostalgic food memories. The foods and tastes and smells that bring us right back to a specific time and place, and the people that we loved and lost who made those moments so special.  They reminisce about pea soup, apple strudel, pizza rustica and more.

My Family Recipe Episode 9: Missing Mom’s Sunday Sauce with Gary Schiro: Gary Schiro had made plenty of his mother’s recipes, but one Sunday morning-not long after his mother passed away-an attempt to make her traditional meatballs and sauce went wrong. Gary wished he could have called her. He wished that he had asked her how to make the recipe properly. Despite having seen her make it 900 times, he never did. This episode takes a look at time-honored family traditions, examines unanswered questions, and is an attempt to reconcile feelings of regret. Plus, a cookalong with Gary goes to show that you can make any family recipe your own without sacrificing meaning, comfort, or deliciousness.

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