Food for Heart, Soul and Spirit
Elsa Cloete's restless ghost has calmed down - ever since 2007, when a restaurant in the farmhouse
she inhabited in the 19th century in Hour Bay, Cape Town (South Africa), started setting a table
every night for her and the enemy soldier she loved. White table cloth, silverware, flowers, fresh
food, the best wines in polished glasses: the works. This according to an article by Christian Putsch
published in the German newspaper Die Welt.
The restaurant itself is an upscale Thai venue, Kitima, that, its website says, aims to "relive the
romance of the days when the Dutch East India Company traded between Europe, the Cape of Good
Hope and Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam and the refinements of an eastern way of life were
imported to the west for the very first time."
Although neither Putsch nor the restaurant expressedly say so, in that context Elsa's table could be
seen as a take on the traditional Thai spirit house. But "feeding" the dead - ghosts, spirits, souls;
making sure they are well attended to by laying out food and drink for them - is not just a question of
appeasement. It's also a matter of honoring. And doing so is spiritually soothing for the living, too.
Dia de los Muertos (All Souls Day) - Mexico
A case in point is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos tradition, and more specifically the little breads
known as pan de muerto. First, some background.
"Mexican cuisine is elaborate and symbol-laden, with everyday tortillas and tamales, both made of
corn, forming an integral part of Day of the Dead offerings." So reads part of the text explaining
why, in 2010, "traditional Mexican cuisine" was listed by UNESCO as part of the world's Intangible
A recent blog by Barbara Hansen "Day of the Dead: What to Cook for Hungry Spirits" on LA Weekly
describes the custom of setting up altars to the dead and decking them out with food and drink on
the Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos (All Souls Day), on November 2.
Celebrations are especially ornate in Oaxaca, Mexico, writes Hansen, and "Oaxacan altars would
include a piece of turkey or chicken in mole negro (black mole), which is Oaxaca's most important
festival dish; also tamales of mole negro wrapped in banana leaves and other tamales with fillings
such as chicken pipián, cheese, squash with chiles and sweet tamales with pineapple and raisins. A
corn soup with epazote and creamy bean soups are also popular."
Here's where pan de muerto - small semi-sweet loaves for which there are many recipes, many
shapes and decorations, none of them "traditional" Mexican in the UNESCO sense but traditional
nonetheless - come in. They are both for the altar and for the living to munch on at this time of year.
Featured in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is the recipe for
"Frida KahloPan de Muerto" which is flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. "The hard part is making
them look like she did: shaped like skulls and dancing whirligig bones."
The recipe of chef Maria Monterrubio at Los Angeles's Guelaguetza restaurant features anise seeds
plus shaping the breads into human form each adorned with a little image of human face, some icing
Another option is the recipe of the great Diana Kennedy (from her book, The Art of Mexican
Cooking), flavored with orange flower water. Kennedy advises how to shape the breads like a skull
My personal favorite decorations are the winsome rolls with faces out of Baroque paintings featured
in Kennedy's Oaxaca al Gusto and adorning Alma Gulliermoprieto's brilliant review of that book
earlier this year in The New York Review of Books. Other renditions, also with faces, illustrate this
Moroccan owner/chef Fatéma Hal of Mansouria, Paris
Keeping cooking traditions (ingredients, recipes) alive - like stories - from generation to generation
is another way of harmonizing with the past but also of achieving greater connectivity with the here
and now. "What is important is to hear the stories that the dish, the produce, the techniques, have to
tell us," says Paris-based Moroccan chef, writer and activist Fatéma Hal.
She is quoted in Jeffrey T. Iverson's "The Conciliatory Chef," a book review in Time Magazine of
Hal's French-language memoir Fille des Frontières (which Iverson translates as Border Girl). Hal
says she likes to think of herself as "as an ear that can hear when cuisine whispers."
Iverson writes: "Dishes like pigeon pastilla - a pie of pigeon, onion, eggs and almonds - are the fruit
of exhaustive research. Hal spent years crisscrossing Morocco, seeking recipes from hundreds of
women and dada, a now almost vanished caste of female cooks."
He goes on: "In an age when top chefs are laboratory technicians, tantrum-prone divas or glorified
brand managers, Hal's humanitarianism is welcome..." The owner of Mansouria herself says: "I think
that's how I'd like to be remembered, as someone who knew how to listen and help others to as well.
"People can communicate when they share a meal," says Hal. "A dish exists to heal each one of our
Jon Bon Jovi Soul Kitchen: Community Restaurant
Which sounds like a philosophy made to order for the just-opened Soul Kitchen, brainchild of
American rock star Jon Bon Jovi. "All are welcome at our table." "Friendship is our daily special."
"Good company whets the appetite." These are among the headings on the eatery's mission
As reported by CNN, the venue in a converted mechanic shop and complete with its own vegetable
garden provides quality three-course meals for everyone. Those who can easily afford to eat out, and
those who cannot afford it easily because they're feeling the pinch of the recession, are invited to
put as much as they wish or the minimum donation of $10 in an envelope to pay for their meal.
For those who are having trouble affording food, period, there is the option of helping out and thus
earning a voucher that entitles them to their meal.
"The Red Bank, N.J.-based restaurant served crusted catfish with red beans and rice, grilled chicken
breast with homemade basil mayo and rice pilaf, and grilled salmon with soul seasonings, sweet
potato mash and sauteed greens during the Oct. 19 opening," reports CBS News.
"You can come here with the dignity of linens and silver, and you're served a healthy, nutritious
meal. This is not burgers and fries," CBS/AP quotes Bon Jovi as saying. Soul Kitchen's website states
that the star got his inspiration for the venue after reading a story about a restaurant in Denver,
Colorado called SAME - So All May Eat.