• Matthew Camilleri

The Bizarre Connection between Food and Death

Updated: May 4


'Food' and 'Death'; two words we wouldn’t usually think of in the same sentence. But a quick look back at our history shows that the two were often connected.


Food has always been central to most cultural and religious events celebrated by many communities all around the world. Normally what comes to mind though, would be joyous celebrations; weddings, parties or religious festivities. But of course, another important aspect of any community is how it deals with death, and even here food is often involved. And it appears that the local scene was no different, even if most of these traditions have since died out.


Agape Tables


Some of the earliest evidence for the use of food in funerary rites is to be found in the numerous catacombs dotted around the Maltese Islands. Among the most unusual features of these interconnected underground Roman cemeteries are the so-called 'agape tables'.


Normally located in the wide public areas of the catacombs, the agape tables resemble in appearance a combination of the reclining couch, or triclinium, that was commonly found in Roman dining rooms, together with a table, or stibadium, where the food would be laid. The major difference was that these agape tables were carved out of the solid rock, and were clearly meant for repeat usage within the catacombs. [1]


It is possible that these tables would have been used during the Parentalia, the Roman annual festival of the dead. During this festival, life came to a pause while families remembered their ancestors. This culminated in the last day, the Feralia, which saw food offerings such as grain and bread soaked in wine left next to family tombs. [2]


Agape tables were also likely used during the funeral itself. The concept of a wake to bid farewell to the deceased is something which has been lost in Malta, but the presence of the tables in the catacombs is the clearest evidence that it was a common occurrence during the Roman era.


In addition, the tables would almost certainly have been used for the refrigerium, a commemorative meal held on the day of burial, again on the ninth day after the funeral, and annually thereafter. By spending time at graves and dining with the dead, the Romans believed they could connect with their ancestors and honour those who had gone before them.


Early Christians continued the refrigerium ritual, at least until it was officially abolished by the Church at the Council of Trullo in 692 AD, in an attempt to curb excesses and abuses which by then seem to have become commonplace.


The Quċċija


One of the more interesting ancient funerary rites was that of the 'kuċċija'. Today, this term refers to a tradition whereby on a child’s first birthday, they are presented with a number of items related to different professions, and the child’s future career is predicted depending on which item they pick up first.


However, a look at the dictionary Lexicon by the Maltese linguist Mikiel Anton Vassalli would suggest that 'quċċija' did not always have the same meaning attributed to it today. Vassalli gives instead the following meaning: “Tisjir bis-smida komuni ħafna fostna” - some kind of recipe using semolina. [3]


More recently, Professor Stanley Fiorini mentioned how he regularly came across this word while examining medieval manuscripts, particularly last wills from the time. One such document stated that it was the wish of the individual concerned that on the first night after his funeral "two tumoli of kuċċija would be given to the poor, as is customary”. Clearly, the 'kuċċija' was some kind of food that was distributed in churches following someone’s death, as suffrage for the deceased’s soul. [4]


The Maltese 18th-century historian Agius de Soldanis also mentions the 'kuċċija' in one of his works, referring to it as “wheat that had been boiled and blessed”. In truth, however, he was quoting the apostolic visitor Monsignor Pietro Dusina, who visited Malta in 1575 and claimed that in some Maltese churches, on the eve of All Souls’ Day, some people would take to the church "cooked wheat, with raisins, nuts, and almonds thrown in, shaped like a cross, and distribute it among those present in the church. They would eat this while reciting prayers for the soul of the deceased, for whom this coccia was being held". [5]


According to Agius de Soldanis, by the time he wrote his account nearly two hundred years later, this custom was no longer being practised, although the tradition had not been completely lost, as some people still used this recipe, and would serve the 'kuċċija' to relatives gathered to celebrate their child’s first birthday; probably the link to the 'quċċija' as we know it today. [5]


L-Għaża


Traditionally, Maltese society observed a number of set rituals following the death of a loved one. There were the 'newwieħa', or paid female mourners, screaming and pulling at their hair; 'viżtu', where close family members of the deceased would wear black for several months; men did not shave for a fortnight; handles were removed from doors; mirrors were covered up.


There was also the tradition of 'għaża'; as a sign of respect and mourning, close relatives of the deceased would be forbidden from cooking food for three days following the funeral. The tradition, in fact, was to turn all pots and pans within the home upside down, as a sign that no cooking could take place, and the family would thus have to eat food that did not require any cooking, or was prepared for them by relatives, friends, or neighbours. [6]


Vassalli refers to 'għaża' as: “Food that is eaten in the first three days of mourning, and this will be sent by friends to the relatives of the deceased, in whose house it is not customary to light any fire until the first days of sadness have passed”. [3]


Bigilla


When we think of traditional Maltese food, one of the first items that comes to mind is always 'bigilla'. This popular dip, made of mashed tic beans, or 'ful ta' Ġirba', is usually accompanied by the equally traditional 'galletti', or water biscuits. What most people don’t realise is that 'bigilla' was once traditionally consumed at funerals, even if this connotation has been lost over time.


Indeed, beans have long been associated with death and the afterlife, both in Maltese and other cultures. Despite being one of the first cultivated crops in history, many civilisations had mixed feelings about them. In ancient Rome for example, priests of Jupiter could not touch, or even mention beans, due to their association with death and decay. There was the belief that beans could contain the souls of the dead, which is why they also featured in the annual festival known as the Lemuria. It was believed that on the Lemuria, the spirits of the dead emerged from their graves and visited the homes in which they had lived. It was thus necessary to confront them and lure them back out of the house during a night-time ritual which included throwing beans over one’s shoulder while reciting incantations, as a representation of casting out the spirits. [7]


In Malta, Agius de Soldanis writes that “these cooked beans, or Beghilla, was distributed to the poor who accompanied the deceased to the Church”. [6]


Try this easy recipe to make your own bigilla.

The association between beans and sombre rituals still exists in some places to this day; they give name to the 'fave dei morti', popularly eaten in some parts of Italy on All Souls’ Day. The name of these biscuits made in the shape of beans - though not out of them - literally translates to "beans of the dead".


L-Ikla tal-Għid tal-Erwieħ


In more recent times, a new tradition is starting to become ever more popular. On All Souls’ Day - the Għid tal-Erwieħ - thematic meals are being organised, helping to revive certain long-forgotten practices.


A typical menu would start with the guests being served with a glass of 'Maħluta' upon sitting down. This alcoholic cocktail is meant to symbolise the good and bad in life through its mixture of both sweet and bitter ingredients, while the alcoholic content represents the spirit of life. [8]


'Ftiet tal-Għaża' would make the perfect appetiser; the simple dish, consisting of toasted bread with an olive oil, garlic and parsley spread, would have been very easy to prepare and take to mourning relatives observing a period of 'għaża'.


The starter would consist of 'Minestra tal-Erwieħ', a reminder of a tradition introduced by the Capuchin Friars of Floriana. During the month of October, they would collect charitable donations in the form of vegetables and other ingredients, which on November 2nd they would then use to make 'minestra' in a large cauldron, before serving it to the poor gathered for the occasion, as suffrage for the souls of the deceased. [8]


The main course would be roast pork, a reminder of yet another lost tradition, that of the 'Ħanżira tal-Erwieħ'. In some villages, the parish priest used to be given a piglet, which was then let loose through the streets with a bell around its neck. People would hear it when it passed their home and would feed it scraps. No one dared steal the pig, for who would dare steal from the dead? On All Souls’ Day, the now fattened pig was slaughtered and served to the poor, so that they could get a taste of meat for a change. Alternatively, the pig’s meat was sold and half the money would be donated to the poor, while the other half went towards celebrating mass for the repose of the souls of the dead. [8]


Finally, for the dessert course, there could be only one option: Malta’s very own 'fave dei morti' - the 'Għadam tal-Mejtin' - one of the few traditions that are actually still alive today. These traditional almond filled sweet pastries, shaped like bones and covered with white icing, are still to be found in most local shops during the month of November.



Make your own Għadam tal-Mejtin with this traditional recipe.


References:


[1] https://leslievella.wordpress.com/tag/triclinium


[2] https://historyandarchaeologyonline.com/appeasing-the-ancestors-the-parentalia-and-feralia


[3] Vassalli, Mikiel Anton (1796). Lexicon. Rome


[4] Fiorini, S. (1999). Ut Vulgo Dicitur Pre-1600 materials for a documented Etymology of Maltese. In P. Xuereb (Ed.), Karissime Gotifride: historical essays presented to Godfrey Wettinger (pp. 169-170). Msida: Malta University Press.


[5] http://www.ilmiklem.com/il-quccija-fil-festa-ta-santa-lucija-fost-il-maltin-ta-tunez


[6] Cassar-Pullicino, G. (1961). Antichi Cibi Maltesi. Journal of the Malta Historical Society, 3(2), 31-54.


[7] https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/favism-fava-beans


[8] http://erwieh.synthasite.com

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