40 Days

P1130350It is traditional in Orthodox churches to have a short memorial forty days after a death, and though my husband was not Orthodox, I am, and I am the one remembering and praying for him. Last week my priest generously held this service, called a panikhida, and I prepared the dish of boiled wheat called koliva for us all to eat together at the end of the service.

I’m sure that in homogeneous cultures women learn from other women how  to make this ceremonial food, as they work in the kitchen together. I learned from other women via the Internet, and it worked out fine.

P1130314 boiled wheat dryingThe essential ingredient is boiled wheat – but actually, even that is not essential, because sometimes it is rice, or lacking wheat, barley or another grain can be substituted. But the image of a kernel of grain being buried endures, as in the Gospel of John Christ speaks of His own coming death, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

Below is a picture of the koliva at a one-year panikhida for someone else, which had been held the week before at my church. That one was decorated with gorgeous yellow roses.


I boiled the wheat, which was said to be enough for 40 small servings, and then laid it out on towels to dry for a couple of hours, as the Greeks in particular like to do. One Greek woman made a strong point about what she considered the superiority of this dry quality, contrasting it with the Romanian koliva which was said to be like pudding.

Most koliva that I had eaten was also more loose and dry, so that appealed to me. But I also read that the Romanians often decorate their wheat with chocolate, which custom I planned to imitate.P1130224 blanched almonds

I included a small amount of cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon —  less of the cinnamon than most people do — golden raisins, almonds and walnuts, and orange zest. It was the first time I had tried blanching almonds, which was easy and fun. When after blanching I squeezed the skins off the nuts, one of the nuts shot across the room and into my open pots-and-pans drawer. I haven’t gone looking for it yet.P1130341

Some of these ingredients were mixed into the wheat as soon as it was dry, but the walnuts I chopped and spread on top, under a layer of graham cracker crumbs which is put there to keep the last layer of powdered sugar from dissolving and disappearing into the wheat. You want it to stay on top and be gleaming white. The usual technique for the top is to lay waxed paper on the powdered sugar to flatten it and make it smooth, bukoliva w graham crackerst I put the final layers of my dish together in the church kitchen where I could not find any waxed paper. My alternative method didn’t work so well, which is why the surface of my finished product has some flat areas, some imprints of my fingers, and some sugar untouched.P1130317 blue candies

I decorated the top with Jordan almonds and chocolate pastilles, and with some little blue baking decorations that I separated out of a color mixture.

The panikhida was held in the evening. Several people from my husband’s church came and stood with us near the Crucifixion icon and we all held candles for prayers and hymns and “Memory Eternal.” Then I scooped out portions of the koliva into little Dixie cups for people to eat together in honor of my dear husband. As it is spooned up everything gets mixed together and sweetened by the powdered sugar, and one tries to give everyone a bit oP1130350f chocolate or a candy. The koliva recipe was judged to be excellent.

That morning of the 40th day I drove to the cemetery to see the grave marker that had been put in place, and to bring some flowers. There were barely enough nice blooms left on our snowball bush to make a cross on my husband’s grave, so I added some calla lilies and roses, and I sat for a while on the grass there. On the way over in the car I had listened to jazz on the radio, to feel him close to me, but at his grave I sang, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”P1130330

17 thoughts on “40 Days

  1. That’s lovely. It took a long time for me to be able to see the almonds as convex instead of concave. At first I thought they were indentations in the sugar, and even after I read what they were, I couldn’t see it.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gretchen, your latest post — your descriptions of the koliva and panikhida and of your day and visit to the grave — is so moving. I hope it was all as soothing as you made it sound and look. Much love to you. I will keep thinking of you and your flowers and your cooking while I am out in the garden on this gorgeous day.

    XXOO N.

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  3. Christ is Risen! I had just been thinking of you and hoping you would post something again soon. Well done, you made a most beautiful kolivo! I am so glad you were able to do this. We are still praying for you here and send you our love and I send a big HUG….

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  4. What beautiful traditions.

    I heard a song the other day, one of our favorites. I was reminded that you and your husband liked it too….”Just the way I am” by Ingrid Michaelson.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a beautiful post and I appreciate how not only are you sharing your life but you are giving some of us (me) and education on your faith which I don’t know much about. And even though you have very different traditions I love they way they illustrate the deeper truths that they point to and I am grateful that we share a common bond and are sisters in Christ. You remain in my prayers. And you made me giggle with your shooting almond. 🙂 Oh…and I think next time I visit a grave I will make a cross with flowers. (Most likely it will be my father’s grave not far from here.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was reading in a devotional, today being Ascension Day, about the glorious truth of Jesus and His death and resurrection defeating Satan ; “…that He might destroy through death, him that had the power of death…”
    May His peace rule in your heart today.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What an interesting recipe! Thanks for including the photos too. I read the recipe to Adam, who likes to make boiled wheat, but has difficulty finding ways to get us to eat it. So he may use some of your ingredients and methods 🙂 Sounds like a lovely, healing service.

    Liked by 1 person

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