April
22nd 2011
Good Friday, good grief, and good eats: Feasts of the Dead

Posted under: American history, book reviews

I’m in Philadelphia for some Easter weekend fun, but I thought it was too much of a coincidence with all of you Christians eager to eat the flesh and drink the blood of your Lord Jesus Christ to let pass the recent publication of Erik Seeman’s The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).  From the book jacket:

“Two thousand Wendat (Huron) Indians stood on the edge of an enormous burial pit… they held in their arms the bones of roughly seven hundred deceased friends and family members. The Wendats had lovingly scraped and cleaned the bones of the corpses that had decomposed on the scaffolds. They awaited only the signal from the master of the ritual to place the bones in the pit. This was the great Feast of the Dead.”

Witnesses to these Wendat burial rituals were European colonists, French Jesuit missionaries in particular. Rather than being horrified by these unfamiliar native practices, Europeans recognized the parallels between them and their own understanding of death and human remains. Both groups believed that deceased souls traveled to the afterlife; both believed that elaborate mortuary rituals ensured the safe transit of the soul to the supernatural realm; and both believed in the power of human bones.

Appreciating each other’s funerary practices allowed the Wendats and French colonists to find common ground where there seemingly would be none. Erik R. Seeman analyzes these encounters, using the Feast of the Dead as a metaphor for broader Indian-European relations in North America. His compelling narrative gives undergraduate students of early America and the Atlantic World a revealing glimpse into this fascinating — and surprising — meeting of cultures.

Seeman is also the author of Death in the New World:  Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).  I’m looking forward to a leisurely read of it this summer–I really liked his article in the Journal of American History from 2001, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of his book, which features chapters on a number of different early American mortuary rituals from Catholic New France and its Indian missions, through protestant New England and the early English Chesapeake, to African American and Jewish rites and a chapter on “burial and condolence” in the Seven Years’ War.  Yum!

I hope you have a sacralicious holiday, whatever it is that you might celebrate about this time of the year.  (Famille Historiann will probably be looking for some tasty dim sum on Sunday morning.)  I’m off to get the official tour of Independence Hall, as it’s been 25 years since I took the tour for the first time.  (It’s interesting to see the post-9/11/2001 changes around Independence Hall, which now has a security check, and last night there was a guard standing sentry out front at 11 p.m.–I don’t recall that ever having been the case, but maybe some of you locals and/or fellow grads of Ben Franklin U. can catch me up on this.)  And finally, I guess I’ll have to take the Betsy Ross House tour this time, too!

18 Comments »

18 Responses to “Good Friday, good grief, and good eats: Feasts of the Dead”

  1. Dan on 22 Apr 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    Go to Devil’s Den at 11th and Ellsworth for Happy Hour! Seriously, best draft selection in the city, hands down, and they’re half off. I don’t even work there, I’m just a proselytizer…

  2. Western Dave on 22 Apr 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Not sure about Dim Sum these days. You must go eat Vietnamese for dinner at Nam Phoung 11th and Christian. And tasty if spendy gelato at Capogiros. (two locations). If you’re available for a coffee, or need playground recommendations let me know.

    Plus, Yay Eric!

  3. Chris on 22 Apr 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    I second the Nam Phoung recommendation — Pho, it”s all about the Pho! ANd for brunch, there’s Honey’s in No. Libs, or The Sidecar at 22nd and Christian — which is a mere 4 blocks from my house.

    Didn’t realize there were all these Philly-ites here.

  4. Clio Bluestocking on 22 Apr 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    What, no bunnies in blood this year?

  5. Indyanna on 22 Apr 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    You basically missed the whole era when even a SEPTA bus was considered too much of a potential terrorist platform to be allowed to drive by on Chestnut Street, Historiann. And you’ve never been to a seminar on declaring Independence, in situ, until you’ve academically processed with forty or more wild-eyed and seething scholars through a bank of metal detectors to get into Ye Old Pennsylvania State House so the critical gloves can come off and then the wine can come out.

  6. Digger on 22 Apr 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    What little I’ve had time to read of Death in the New World, I’ve enjoyed. He weaves in a lot of archaeological information, and that always makes me happy :) Thanks for the heads up on the Huron-Wendat book, I’ll have to get my hands on that one, as well.

    Enjoy Philly!

  7. Comrade PhysioProf on 23 Apr 2011 at 10:32 am #

    GENO’S! WHIZ WITH!

  8. Indyanna on 23 Apr 2011 at 10:45 am #

    PAT’S!!! Plain Steak; Hold the Cheese. Lots of pepper and catsup.

  9. Dr. Koshary on 23 Apr 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    Geno’s? Oh, CPP: for the first time ever, I am forced to conclude you have no idea what you’re talking about. If you’re going for the tourism, go to Pat’s. If you want a good cheesesteak, go south to Tony Luke’s or west to D’Alessandro’s. Historiann, please do not bother with this Geno’s nonsense.

    Oh, crud: now I have a craving for a cheesesteak, and there are none to be had here in Research City. I envy/resent you all.

  10. Historiann on 23 Apr 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    We’re skipping South Philly, which was always in my mind overrated.

    I’m reeling from the time machine feeling of being back here. Amazingly, I found my fave Vietnamese joint on N. 11th St. (The Vietnam.) It’s been completely remodeled and fancified, but the dishes are the same (fortunately, I think.)

    Sadly, the prices are not the same. The $3.95 rice vermicelli bowl with spring roll (ca. 1988-89) is now $9.95.

  11. Indyanna on 23 Apr 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Center City West is the hot new food frontier– :) like it was when I came here during the fabled “restaurant renaissance.” Astral Plane is gone. I can’t remember the rest. There’s an honors thesis at Penn on the subject, though. Down to I don’t know what now from that seemingly-Triassic era.

  12. Western Dave on 23 Apr 2011 at 5:50 pm #

    Dalessandros (now open on Sunday!) in Roxborough. Jim’s if you must stay near Center City. (CPP Geno’s is now a front for the hate wing of the Republican party – thought you would have gotten the memo Comrade). The food in South Philly has gotten remarkably better too with decent Mexican joining the fray. Food in Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy is getting better too. Germantown, sadly, doesn’t match up. And if you’ve got the bucks, it’s a Jose Garces or Vetri joint.

  13. Chris on 24 Apr 2011 at 6:31 am #

    Germantown does have Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, though, and that place is sublime. As for cheesesteaks, Chubby’s in Roxborough, hands down. If CC is the destination, then oddly enough, I’d suggest Campo’s in Old City at 2nd and Market. Hey, I loathe Old City like everyone else, but Campo’s does do a good cheesesteak. For more upscale, there’s Pumpkin at 17th or 16th and South — arguably part of the new renaissance.

  14. Western Dave on 24 Apr 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    @Chris,
    Geechee Girl moved to Mt. Airy 2 years ago now at least, on the same block as Groben’s across from the fire house. Sigh. G-town does still have Dahlak which now also has an Indian menu. Cheapest buffet lunch deal in the NW though not as good as West Philly Indian buffets. Chubby’s got voted Best in Philly for Chicken Cheese Steak. I’m sorry, but that disqualifies them from the cheesesteak debate. We used to go there back when Dallessandros was closed on Sundays (which they are not anymore) and I always thought the best thing about the place was that they served alcohol and the worst thing was that they weren’t picky about who they served it to. I swear I saw an 8 year old walk out of there with a six-pack once.

    Who knew this was a Philly Food Blog?
    Plus, we should have a Philly meet up for fans of Historiann.

  15. Charles on 24 Apr 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    “We’re skipping South Philly, which was always in my mind overrated.”

    Just to echo Western Dave, there’s a lot more below South St. now than just cheesesteaks and red checked tablecloth Italian joints.. The whole East Passyunk corridor has come to life with hip restaurants, bars, and boutiques. Influxes of Southeast Asians and Mexicans has made Washington between 11th and 8th an amazing cheap eats mecca, great for pho, tacos, and bahn mi. Plus the Bella Vista/Queen Village hood has a bunch of lovely BYOs and gastropubs.

    Try to hit South Philly next time (following some of the recommendations above would be a good start, Yelp is also helpful), and I think you’ll be glad you did.

  16. Charles on 24 Apr 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    Also, more in relation to the post, I’m similarly psyched about Seeman’s new book and “Death in the New World,” both are also on my summer reading list.

  17. Chris on 25 Apr 2011 at 4:47 am #

    I didn’t realize Geechee Girl moved to Mt. Airy. And I didn’t know Dahlak now has two locations — I’m a fan of the W. Philly spot. Admittedly, I don’t get over to Mt. Airy/G-town all that frequently. I second Charles’s point about Passyunk, and Vera Cruzana on Wash. and 9th, just before the Italian market, is wonderful.

  18. Historiann on 25 Apr 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. I guess the upshot of all of this is that there is more good food in Philadelphia than we could possibly sample in a weekend. We mostly stuck with old faves in Center City & University City.

    The Penn campus is nearly unrecognizable to me now. I’m not nostalgic for anything there, except maybe the opportunities to wander through the buildings without IDs or key cards. . .

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