On wakes and topless dancers

When my mom’s youngest sister passed away a few years ago, my parents hosted a wake at their house in San Francisco. My mom’s family is from the south of France, originally from northern Italy (and most of them now live in California), and they are an animated bunch who like large gatherings of people. Whether it’s a wedding, funeral, baptism, whatever, my mom’s family whoops it up and does it right. I think i assumed that all families were this way, because even in my dad’s family (Mississippi/Alabama/Georgia folks), their tradition of family gatherings, whatever the reason, are always relaxed and food-laden. Life revolves around food. I always assumed that everyone else’s families were the same way. I don’t know how they do things in the rest of the country, but the wakes i’ve been to in the American South are like big parties. There is always a lot of food, and at some point someone will break out the alcohol, and next thing you know (if you didn’t know any better) you’d think you were at a house party and not a wake at all.

So my aunt died, and it sucked. The word “suck” doesn’t nearly do justice to it, but there really is no other way to express how shitty that period of time was, how we all felt.

I flew out to San Francisco for a week to ensure that my mom didn’t lose her mind. It became clear, though, that the only way to get her mind off of the tragic loss of her younger sister was to keep her constantly occupied. So we planned the wake, planned the menu, shopped for it, started cooking days in advance, and enlisted help for it. All the women in the family pitched in. We made more food than i thought anyone would ever get through. A ham, several quiches, salads, casseroles, desserts (i made about 100 cream puffs and a couple of pies), crab cakes, etc (I made the crab cakes, Baltimore-style, because the boy had made them for my aunt at Christmas and she loved them). after the funeral, 100 people showed up to the house. My aunt was a popular, fun-loving woman and had many friends. But when her friends saw all that food, they were shocked. Some even expressed distaste. To them, the thought of eating was sacrilegious, especially at a time like this. But to us, we’ve never known otherwise, especially at a time like this. I mean, you gotta eat. It took some time for people to start wandering into the dining room, and they would do so in twos and threes, in hushed whispers, wondering if it would be okay to pick at a salad leaf or grab a quick cream puff. But suddenly, as if the skies parted, they descended. And within a short period of time, there was no food left. My mom, my sister and i stood around shocked. Where did it all go? Did we even get a bite?

The thing is, you gotta eat, whether or not you’re in a funk like at a wake and think you’re being rude by eating. The body needs it, but more importantly, so does the soul. Afterwards, after all the food was gone and people were still in the house, we all gathered in the family room and related stories. A woman stood up, an old friend no one had seen in 35 years, and related the story of how she got to know my family.

This woman, who i’ll call Sally only because i can’t remember her name to save my life, met my family when she worked for one of my aunts who ran the Frederick’s of Hollywood store located on Market Street in San Francisco back in the 1960s and early 70s. My mom and her two other sisters worked there as well, and my grandmother even helped out.

Now before you start getting all snickery and tee-heeing about this (and trust me i’m right there with you), back in the day Frederick’s of Hollywood had a lot of formal wear. It was kind of like a cheaper Victoria’s Secret. Over time, it’s gotten super cheesy and cheap and hell, and i even browsed the site when i was looking for cheap slutwear for my honeymoon. There are photos showing my mom and her sisters with big bouffant hair wearing extremely revealing floor-length gowns, totally glammed up. This was how they dressed for work. I absolutely love this.

Sally was young and got a job at F of H and it opened a whole new world of glamour for her. And their clientele was mostly made up of local dancers from the burlesque and topless places over on Broadway. Their main client, though, was Carol Doda.

Those of you who have never heard of Carol Doda, well, she’s the one who brought topless dancing to SF. She was (is) an icon. The club where she worked had a huge neon sign of her outside with blinking lights for nipples, and it was still up and blinky until quite recently. Having Carol Doda shop at your store and be on a first name basis with you was a Big Deal.

Anyway, this last part has nothing to do with food, but more to do with what topics are discussed at my family gatherings. Let’s just say that discussing Carol Doda at my aunt’s wake made everyone crack up uncontrollably, and it was exactly the medicine we needed. That and the food brought us together, it helped us heal, and it kept my mom from going nuts.

The two cases of Korbel we blew through didn’t hurt either.


In the south it is considered RUDE to show up at a wake without food! Sheesh - Californians! ;)

Good story!

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