Last week, the Death Salon took over the Getty Villa in LA. I wasn’t able to attend (I was finishing the third of my space opera trilogy, darn it), but I did interview the amazing Sarah Troop, the Social Media Editor of the Death Salon.
Sarah Troop is an incredible cook and deeply knowledgable about the ways in which food is used to mourn and celebrate at funerals.
By day, Sarah is a museum curator and historian. The rest of the time, she is the executive director of the Order of the Good Death. She writes and recreates historical and cultural recipes for her blog Nourishing Death, which examines the relationship between food and death in rituals, culture, religion, and society. Sarah also recently co-created Death & the Maiden, a project that endeavors to explore the historical and cultural roles women have played in relation to death.
How did you get interested in death?
Sarah Troop: As a Mexican-American, I’m fortunate to come from a death-positive culture. My grandmother, particularly, has had a huge influence on me. Pretty much all conversations with her eventually lead to the subject of death. Yours or hers, it doesn’t matter. Either one will do.
Since I can remember, she’s been planning her own funeral. She speaks openly about her plans with grace and humor. She has purchased numerous plots/graves which she frequently offers me, as if offering a stick of gum or something equally as trivial: “You know, I have these extra graves. Do you want one?”
Growing up having this wonderful example of an adult who is so open about the subject of death and addresses it with that same humor, practicality, and joy as she does life, is… Well, obviously, it has helped define my own identity to a great extent.
How did you get connected with the Death Salon?
ST: I had been part of a conversation that started on Twitter, primarily among Order of the Good Death members, about getting together in the real world. This quickly segued into the idea of sharing our work with each other and a wider audience. Megan (Rosenbloom — interviewed here) and Caitlin (Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes) took the seeds of these ideas and created the concept and format of Death Salon.
How far would you like to see the Death Salon go?
ST: We had no idea what to expect when we started this, but I know we are all so excited and honored that institutions like the Getty and Mütter Museum are collaborating on our 2015 events. It may seem a small thing, but right now the thing I find so meaningful is the impact we are making for people on a personal level. The people that came to Death Salon out of curiosity, that said “We had no idea what to expect,” but now, are making big changes in not only their relationship to death but their relationships with their loved ones.
What’s your favorite morbid recipe?
ST: Ah! This is like asking which child is your favorite! I’m going with this one because there is chocolate and pumpkins in it, and who doesn’t like chocolate and pumpkins?
As I understand it, the word chocolate originates from the Aztec cacahuatl, “black nut.” The species name cacao, from the Mayan language, is a reference to the tree, fruit, and drink that was made from it. The Mayans regarded the cacao as a holy tree – life sustaining, but also as a portal to death.
The Aztecs often called chocolate yollotl–eztil – “heart, blood.” In turn, they called the still-beating hearts ripped from the chests of their live human sacrifices cacahuatl – “cocoa fruit” or “Gods’ food.”
Just before a victim was sacrificed, they were given a drink called itzpacaltl – “water with which obsidian blades are washed.” It was used to intoxicate the victim into an ecstatic state.
Shamans or sacrificial priests took the sacrificial knives and washed off the blood from the last victim in water. They then combined it with chocolate and pumpkin. It is said that the drink had the following effect: “He became nearly unconscious and forgot what was said to him. Then his good mood came back and he started to dance again. It is believed that, bewitched by the drink, he gave himself, full of joy and happiness, before death.” – Diego de Duran
I hope that was suitably morbid enough. Also, I’d like to note I have never actually made this recipe. Probably.
Are you writing a cookbook?
ST: I am currently writing a local history book that will be out in April 2016. I know it doesn’t sound all that morbid, but if you know me, you can rest assured there will be some morbid gems in there.
Of course, I have a couple books on the subject of the relationship between food and death in mind and I’m always making notes for those. One of them is more ‘academic’ and will require a lot of international travel and research before I can get to it. Another, more practical book I have in mind is to help people integrate food into funerals, memorial practices, and rituals for mourners, too, in very personal, creative ways.
I can’t wait!
An audio recording of Sarah’s lecture on Forest Lawn and LA’s relationship to death at last weekend’s Death Salon is available here.
The second Death Salon of 2015 will be held at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia on October 5 & 6. You should not miss it!