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    Good Grief: Southern Funeral Food

    by | Apr 4, 2009

    funeralpieAs a child the funerals were mysterious things. I never understood the camaraderie, the laughter and guffaws. And how on God’s earth could they eat and drink and carry on the way they did, ‘specially when somebody had died?’

    I’d tiptoe among the adults, periodically bear-hugged by a distant great aunt, who’d say, (between bites of a cheese biscuit), “Aren’t you Jack and Mary Ellen’s baby?”

    I would nod, dodge their eye contact and chafe at the idea of a twelve year-old baby. I’d barely make my escape before, once again, I’d find myself pressed against the lavender scented enormous bosom of another aunt who was sure to inquire, “Aren’t you hungry, sweetheart? There’s plenty. Go over there and get yourself a piece a that pie your Aunt Millie always makes. We wish she’d make it at Christmas ‘stead of waitin’ for somebody to die.”

    Nary a morsel of that pie would touch my tongue for fear I’d be next. But alas! I missed some delicious, soul-inspiring food that was prepared by hands that wanted to comfort and hearts that longed to provide nourishment and love. There’s not much else that can be done in our feeble attempts to offer comfort, so I thank God for this especially southern custom of sharing. It’s one of the few ways we can say we’re hurting for them and that we desperately want to help to ease their pain. And so what is allowed? A pie, a ham, a cake, a casserole, pimento cheese, and a prayer.

    Strangely enough, grief makes most of us hungry. It gives us something to do, some small talk to babble. It conjures fond memories and a shared community of people on their best behavior. It reminds us – after all, that we are still alive. Food makes us feel that way: A reminder that we exist.

    When the crowds come to show their respect, they descend upon the grieving household, their favorite recipe prepared – in a dish of course, that need not be returned. A designated friend whose grief, while real, is not as great as that of the primary bereaved would meet the donators at the door. She, (even now this is clearly a role for the women folk), accepts the comfort food, voices the appropriate clucking sounds of approval, makes note of who brought what, lest there be some confusion at the time of thank you notes, then heads off to find a place of honor for the contribution.

    You can surely bet that anyone who had ever cooked for the deceased would offer up favorites of the honored as a tribute to their memory, an ironic twist of taste buds for all in attendance.

    I hope that my friends and family will feast on my favorites with gusto and eat plenty enough for me, too. I hope my daughter, Austen will have written down some of the recipes she is (thankfully) always calling about, and will cook anything that makes her laugh in memory of me, like the time she caught me making – literally – dozens of Rice Krispie bunnies in the middle of the night just before Easter one year. (Steroids can do that kind of thing to an otherwise, mostly sane person.) I hope my stepdaughter, Kirsten will bake “Mom’s Pound cake,” which is a recipe she fortunately married into and has done great justice to time and again. I hope my other stepdaughter, Maggie, will ensure that the vegetarians have many delectable choices in the spread. I hope my husband, Lee and his son, Lee leave the cooking to the women-folk. And I hope that no woman is around the very next morning for my husband’s specialty: Moonstruck Eggs (maybe later if whomever she may be – is lucky, but I’ll be damned – even at the end — if I want it delivered as breakfast in bed). Whereas, I hope my son-in-law, Adam will contribute his pickled shrimp, with homemade mayonnaise, so that my friends will know first-hand what I’ve raved about many times. I’ve learned much from Adam, particularly about Charleston cooking ways, during family special occasions in the kitchen. And, even though I’m the “baby,” I hope my sister is around to bake a chocolate cream pie, and my brother will contribute his one, and only, baked good: banana cake. I hope my friends will make some of my own recipes because they actually liked them as much as they claimed to at the time, or some of their recipes that I have relished and replicated (you know who you are and what to bring). I think I’d like it best if someone also cooked up some memories all the way back to my Aunt Melba’s butterscotch pie, or some of Granddaddy H’Earl’s chess pie. If Granddaddy H’Earl were here today, I would still be unable to get the recipe for his chess pie. He always said, “it was ‘jes pie.”

    It all sounds likes a delicious Southern sympathy soirée. Wish I could be there. Sure hope you will be.

    The topic of “Southern Funeral Foods” and Southern funerals will continue in weeks to come with more stories and more recipes.

    As said by my Aunt Ramona Paris of Pride, KY about a friend: “Honey, she knew he was not going to make it. She already had the table ready.”

    A Bird in the Hand is Always Welcome: Chicken Pot Pie

    The Ultimate Comfort Food

    • 3 or 4 large boneless chicken breasts, or a whole fryer
    • 3 cups of chicken broth
    • 1 cup of dry, white wine
    • 3 tbsp. finely chopped fresh parsley
    • 1 bay leaf
    • 2 tbsp. butter
    • 1 clove of garlic – minced
    • 2 tbsp. finely minced shallots
    • ½ medium-sized onion, finely minced
    • 3/4 cup chopped celery
    • 1/2 cup chopped carrots
    • 1 cup of sliced, or diced, mushrooms
    • 4 oz. Canned, or frozen baby green peas
    • 3 tbsp. cornstarch
    • 1/4-cup cream
    • 1/4-cup milk to brush the crust
    • Salt and pepper to taste
    • Fresh or refrigerated pie crust (enough for two or three pies – not frozen)

    Combine the first 6 ingredients in a heavy pan. Poach on low temperature until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken to cool and set aside the broth and other ingredients. .

    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sauté the garlic, shallots, onions, celery and carrots in butter until transparent in a large, deep skillet or pan. Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté until tender. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the celery and carrots are tender. In the meantime, cut the chicken into small cubes and roll out the piecrust such that it can be used to line a 9 x 13 casserole dish or pan. Place in the dish and spread additional crust up the sides of the pan. Add the chicken and the peas to the sauté, stirring thoroughly. Drain approximately ¾ cup of the hot liquid into a small bowl and whisk in the cornstarch. Pour into the sauté. Stir in the Half & Half. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into the crust and top with a second crust. Cut small slits decoratively in the top of the crust. Bake for 30 minutes. Brush the top of the crust with the milk and continue to bake for 5 to 10 minutes until the crust is golden. Serve with love.

     

    ###
    Terri Evans

    Terri Evans

    Terri Evans is 25+year marketing communications professional, a partner at LeslieEvansCreative and Bcauz marketing (cause-related). She has been a food columnist for Atlanta Intown and Atlanta Buckhead newspapers, and a contributing writer for Georgia Magazine, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and other publications. Evans was also a finalist in a Southern Living cooking competition. She is (and has long been) at work on a novel set in the South (of Georgia) and the South (of France). She's always cookin' up somethin'.

     

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    • Melinda Ennis

      This story recalled my own childhood memories of my first funeral—my Great Grandpa’s, and my bewilderment that my uncles and daddy could be telling jokes at such a solumn occassion. Great piece—but you forgot the ubiquitous green bean casserole, which I’ve had at every Southern funeral and church supper I’ve ever attended (topped of course, by Durkee’s onion rings—is there any other use for them??)
      I especially loved the “pimento cheese and a prayer” and look forward to the next chapter!

    • Kim Herald

      Only “us southerns” can truly appreciate this experience in our lives. In our small community in Kentucky, our friend kept tabs on who did or did not bring anything to her home after the loss of a loved one. Let me just say to this day she still has not forgotten. What really puzzled me as a child was that someone always “sat up” all night with the dearly departed at the funeral home. I thought they did this in case the person who had died “woke up”! Thanks for sharing and keep the storeies coming!!!

    • chrys

      Great and sad memories have been conjured up by this wonderful piece. As I have gotten older, I understand the joys of just being together with family and friends telling stories and reminiscing. Thank you for bringing those memories back. Thanks for the recipe too.

    • Austen

      I’m going to go ahead and say, that while I enjoy calling for recipes, I don’t plan on cooking ANYTHING in your memory anytime soon. So there.

    • Janie Hauswirth

      @: I’m with Austen on that one. I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else in the world but you nailed it for the South and our funeral foods! And I am so thankful for the remembrances of Daddy H’Earl and his chess pie, Pride, KY, your mom whom I loved so much, brother, Pride’s banana cake, and so much more. Memories of days and people gone by but not forgotten. Our wonderful Southern heritage and rituals. Thanks so much.

    • Carol

      My dad died from an accident in 1979. We received so much food and there were so many people! Even though I was an adult at the time, I felt the same way about how could a person be laughing and stuffing their face when someone so special had died. I, too, now realize that keeping up with whose tupperware and corning ware is whose can be a full time chore, and it keeps one’s mind occupied! But, ah — the comfort!! I can still almost remember exactly what each person brought, and what acolor of turquoise or harvest gold their bowl was! We southerners know how to do it, even grieve.

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