When Deirdre Carey’s baby was being treated for a serious illness, the lasagnas came. When she and her husband split a few years later, they arrived again. A third wave of lasagnas hit after her mother passed away, and when Carey was recuperating from surgery last year, she sustained another round.
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” said Carey, of Franklin. “It was so nice of everyone to bring me food. But I really can’t eat lasagna anymore. I associate it with bad times.”
Americans’ relationship with food has turned impossibly complicated. But when it comes to a dish to bring to a friend who has experienced a major life event — from a birth to a death and everything in between — the lasagna has no natural predators. An entire meal in one delicious rectangle, it can play kosher, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, fat-free, low-cal, low-fat, low-glycemic, local, artisanal, whole-grain, Paleo. It was Mediterranean before Mediterranean was cool.
Lasagna has no agenda. It travels well, freezes well, requires no complicated reheating instructions. Lasagna is the circle of life told in one Pyrex dish; odds are that at some point, almost every American will find him- or herself on one end of the great lasagna exchange.
Indeed, pasta-industry statistics from 2013 found that in a two-week period, about one in seven Americans will eat lasagna at home, compared with just under one in eight people in 2011, according to Harry Balzer, a food-industry analyst with the NPD Group.
“It has this iconic status because it says, ‘This is me taking care of you,’ ” says Mark D’Alessandro, a visiting professor at Florida International University’s Chaplain School of Hospitality & Tourism Management “It’s almost like a culinary hug.”
In Chelmsford, Joanne Stanway recently made three lasagnas in less than a month: one for a neighbor whose father died, another for a neighbor whose mother passed away, and a third for the daughter of a woman entering hospice.
“When you have family or friends going through a difficult time, you feel helpless, and the one thing you can do is comfort and nourish them,” Stanway says. “Most people won’t turn away a gift of food.”
Lasagna controls so much of the sympathy market that a nonprofit that coordinates volunteer efforts has taken steps to control the volume, says Stephanie Lawrence, executive director of Neighbor Brigade , a Lexington-based organization that helps mobilize assistance in crises. “We don’t want our recipients to be overwhelmed by weeks of lasagnas,” she says. “It can get very old very quickly. Each one lasts for at least several meals.”
Indeed, as appreciative as recipients are of the thought and effort that goes into baking a lasagna, its Kardashian-like ubiquity has inspired guilt and even less-charitable emotions.
“My kids now hate lasagna, and I now hate lasagna,” says a woman who agreed to talk only if her name, town, and description of her multiple surgeries were withheld. “It got to the point where we had so many that we were throwing food away, which was horrible.” She pauses to think about what she’d said. “I know I’m going to hell. I’m cursing these people who were so good to us.”
But for those who are too overwhelmed with grief to cook, or whose family rhythms are thrown off by illness or a new baby, the task is not so much fending off lasagnas as it is making the most of them.
More than 20 years after her mother passed away, Celine Coggins, of Milton, vividly recalls her father’s efforts to make the lasagna bounty last. “She died in August, and I remember my father got obsessed with freezing them. He said, ‘There will be a time in January or February when people stop bringing them, and we will want lasagna,’ ” she recalls. “He was trying to get us into a position where we’d have lasagna to last five years.”
To this day, Coggins says, she still half expects to find one lurking in his freezer: “From 1992.”
Information is scarce on what might be called “comfort lasagna zero” — the first one carried to the home of a grieving or ill neighbor. But pasta and pizza began to enter American mass consciousness in the postwar years, says Mark Rotella , a senior editor at Publishers Weekly, and the author of “Amore: The Story of Italian American Song” and “Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria.”
“In the 1950s,” Rotella says, “you had Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’ [‘When the stars make you drool, just like a pasta fazool, that’s amore’]. There was a lot of Italian food starting to make it into mainstream cuisine.”
Now it’s so entrenched in this country that lasagna has even gone Hollywood. In 2011’s “We Bought a Zoo,” a single mom tries to make a play for the newly widowed Matt Damon by making him a lasagna.
In Somerville, Al Capone says customers regularly come to Capone Foods looking for pre-made lasagnas to bring as gifts. Over the winter he noticed a lot of pregnant women in the area, he said, and now he’s bracing for a lasagna “rush.”
Expectant moms and dads, you’ve been warned.Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.