Friday, May 12, 2006

"Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come." --W. H. Auden

This Mother's Day, I'm going to see my Father. My father who died one year ago, at 11:20 AM, May 14th. This will be my first visit to his grave, since his interment. A year later, and it is going to be emotionally difficult, beyond words. This first year has been one of many painful anniversaries, reminders of times when he was still here with us. After this, there will be no more memories of what we were doing together the year before.

Grief is a physical ailment, without cure. At times, my grief seems unbearable, its pain weighing heavily on my chest. It is a perpetual nausea, which I struggle to keep down, but often, without warning, it comes to surface, again and again. Despite well intentioned, but mistaken predictions, my grief has not subsided. But prolonged mourning is modernly frowned upon. And so, concealing it becomes a learned behavior, where mourning is something done within. At least I am cautious, making sure to never tell others grieving, that it will become easier with time, as I know it does not. (This is where I could literally write thousands of words about my personal horrors of grief and mourning, but instead, I digress.)

After returning home from my father's funeral, I went to work in Funeral Service and became a student of Mortuary Science. I felt the need to be a quiet, present servant to others in their respective times of need. By becoming very close with death, I could protect my grief. And I learnedexactly what took place within my father's dying body, organ by organ, cell by cell, day by day, minutes, seconds, the end. (I needed to know what most others would not want to know, concerning all of the processes associated with death, dying, and and 'aftercare'). But by the end of the year, the work and school schedules combined with long commutes, often with little or no sleep, overwhelmed me, and my already fragile personal health became further compromised. I was spent.

I did not return to my former long time occupation within the public library system, nor did I return to funeral service. Instead, I retired to assume the role of a traditional housewife. I rediscovered myself, in the kitchen. The kitchen has since become my sanctuary, a sacred place of refuge. My father would be proud of his reinvented daughter, finally realizing what is truly important in life, and what is not. He would be proud of what I've become in my turning away from all that I had become before.

An archived newsletter from The Friends of the General Cemetery, in Sheffield, England, contains a brief discussion of the tradition of providing funeral biscuits for distribution among mourners, and includes a historical recipe. These biscuits (known by a variety of names) were sometimes served during funeral ceremonies, while other times, served during wakes and interments. I did some additional research and found limited information regarding funeral biscuits from various sources (including some validation from Janet at The Old Foodie and Hazel at Londonist).

Two of the recipes found were very similar, comprised literally of just eggs, flour, and sugar:

W. Staveley's New Whole Art of Confectionary published in Chesterfield in 1816, FUNERAL BISCUITS: Take twenty-four eggs, three pounds of flour, and three pounds of lump sugar grated, which will make forty eight finger biscuits for a funeral.

Another, from Girl's Own Paper (c.1905), FUNERAL BISCUITS: Take sixteen eggs, three pounds of flour, three pounds of lump sugar grated, mix, and form into forty-eight fingers.

However, when I baked a very small batch of these, I found them to be not bad, but not all that good, either. But when I remembered my beloved ladyfingers seem to be a close descendant of these basic recipes, I happily accepted the rather primitive results.

When I baked this recipe (c.19th century) (bottom right corner of page), provided by The Friends of the General Cemetery in Sheffield, I was very pleased with the results:
(For 50 cakes)

3 kilos of flour
2 kilos of fine sugar
2.5 kilos of butter
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
4 teaspoons of caraway seeds

Mix these ingredients together, weigh out 5 ounces per cake on a greased sheet. Press the stamp (the stamp normally had an elaborate pattern with a heart in the middle) into each cake. Bake in moderate oven until pale brown. (I made a considerably smaller batch, baking at 350° for approximately 7-8 minutes and used a crucifix for the stamp.)

On my journey a thousand miles back to my father's ending, it will be my honor to bring these home-baked funeral biscuits to his grave.

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