Recipe For the Dead

Perhaps this is unusual. I have no way of knowing. But when I’m missing a loved one who has passed, or wishing to commemorate someone who is no longer with us… Sometimes, I’ll cook a meal that they loved. Not that I necessarily ever cooked for the departed. But sharing a repast that they favored, having those aromas in the air as the food is cooking, seems a very real way of honoring a memory.

These are, of course, the same fragrances that they savored, and in the instances of family, were in the airs of yesterdays that we once shared.

When my brother died early last year, unexpectedly, just a month shy of his sixtieth birthday, I suddenly flashed on when we were kids, in the 1960s. He was seven years older than me–that soon, will change forever–but we shared certain predilections.

And one was for Chicken Delight. Chicken Delight, as Boomers will remember, was one of the very first home-delivery sensations, famous for its television ad slogan, “Don’t kick tonight. Call Chicken Delight!”

The morning I learned the news that my brother had passed in his South Carolina home, I was stunned. Later that evening, I called Chicken Holiday, the take out place whose recipes somewhat emulate the fried chicken from our childhood, right down to the heavy-paper plates (doubled, as both tray and lid), that the meals came in. I ordered four dinners, for myself, and the friends I was with. But when I got to the shop, there was only one bag on the counter. I asked the proprietress where my order was, and she said, “Oh. I thought you ordered a four-piece dinner.” …

I went to Pathmark instead, and cooked another one of my brother’s unusual favorites: hot dogs and tater tots!

The flavors of childhood, of course, can endure.

Just a couple of summers ago, I sent my brother a recipe that had eluded us, directions for my mother’s perfect tomato meat sauce. It had been a staple of our lives for a couple of decades, but for some reason, in the early 1980s, she refused to make it any longer. Nor, when I finally asked, could she fully remember the exact method of her concoction. Suddenly, a few years back, I remembered that she once told me that she had originally based the recipe on one she found in Esquire magazine in the 1950s. I figured that Esquire must have published, at some point, a collection of their best recipes. A quick check at showed that I was right.

And within days, I was back in the kitchen, sauteeing the chop meat, and onions, adding the tomatoes, and tomato paste, and mushrooms…

When I later made it for my Mom, it was the first time in thirty years that her home was filled with the same delicious atmosphere that we had once enjoyed.

My tributes and emulations can be far simpler. When one actor friend died a few years ago, who favored single-malt scotch, I bought a bottle, and toasted his memory.

Earlier this year, I was delighted to discover that the Hal-vah candy that my father favored, was back in supermarkets.

It is said that we cannot talk to the dead. But it is fascinating to realize that we can indeed share a meal with them.


James H. Burns
James H. Burns

James H. (Jim) Burns, is a writer/actor living in New York. He has written features for such magazines as GENTLEMAN’S QUARTERLY, ESQUIRE, HEAVY METAL and TWILIGHT ZONE; and Op-Eds or essays for NEWSDAY, THE VILLAGE VOICE, THE SPORTING NEWS and THE NEW YORK TIMES. He has become active in radio, and contributed to Broadway, and Off-Broadway, productions.