Good Grief: Southern Funeral Foods continues with more recipes and stories.
“Now several electric fans are whirring in the downstairs room and hallways, and a buffet lunch is being served. The food at a Southern funeral is usually good, but this food is splendid: turkey and country ham and stuffed tomatoes, loaves of delectable soft homemade bread and gallons of strong iced tea.”
He Lay Dead, a Bitter Grief :“When they put Bill Faulkner in the ground.” William Styron, Life Magazine 1962
Southern funeral food is just good food, prepared by condolence cooks who instinctively know the food and stir straight from their hearts. While people of all regions, cultures, and religions have their own funeral food customs or etiquette, it is a sacrilege (to me) to believe that any recipe created above the Mason-Dixon line could possibly compare to the way we Southerners can pity with pork, or comfort with a casserole.
A well-chosen funeral food offering has passed the test of time, made by mothers and grandmothers for Sunday dinners over generations and decades. We taste this food through our memory. In fact, these tastes have been distinguished by our very memory. Sometimes, depending on the ingredients, one can taste the real origin of the dish: the land, or the sea, or the fields and orchards. Try it. Close your eyes and remember a vision of the feathery stalks of silver corn gently blowing in the breeze in the fields of Kentucky, and later, how sweet it tasted, and now again in your memory. These flavors are in the collective conscience of generations of Southerners. The Southern soil and sun, waters and pastures bear our fruits of compassion, so fitting a send-off to those who rest in the Southern soil.
Although the funeral food culinary categories may be few, the nuances of preparation that individualize each dish are many. Special touches, family secrets and expressions of personality permeate the varieties of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and pecan pies. Community pride and states rights stew in the barbecue; religion and beliefs bake up in the breads and pound cakes, and history reveals itself in the recipes influenced by ancestry, race, education, and wealth or poverty.
“I suppose one of the reasons for the traditions of making food for the family is so that they don’t have to deal with the everydayness of life during this time.
The Very Reverend Harry Pritchett, The Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, GA
Suspending the “everydayness” burdens of life for the grieving is a gift that has long been delivered by Southerners, whether it’s food, an offer to drop off dry cleaning, or help to craft an obituary, but if food is your choice, then a few fundamental guidelines should be considered:
- Don’t take anything that requires work on the spot. This is an already overloaded kitchen brimming with life and death. At once.
- Yes, ease is part of the offering in funeral food, but the ease is for the family: not you. This is the time to make something real. The Colonel is not invited. If it’s a ham, it’s already sliced; the biscuits need only be warmed; the casseroles warmed briefly in the microwave, or frozen for the future when the bourbon and sedatives wear off. No last minute sauces. No individual dishes plated just off the stove. This is the time to provide food that can be eaten immediately, or weeks from now from the freezer.
- The foods can still be varied, despite the “ease” limitations. Best of all, this is no time to count calories or cholesterol. It is a time for indulgences. Deviled eggs – and lots of them. Macaroni and cheese. Potato salad. Most any casserole with a Cream of Mushroom Soup base, especially the infamous green bean casserole.
- Pies and cakes should be abundant. Pre-slice cakes, sheet cakes, pies and brownies. The bereaved should be holding hands, not pie knives.
- For the freezer: Be sure to label with thawing and baking instructions if your dish is for the future.
- Organize the friends, neighbors and support system. How many hams can one family endure? Ensure variety with vegetables, fruits, salads, rice and potatoes. In the midst of the casseroles, all would appreciate some straight up fresh pole beans.
- Blessed are those who bring breakfast. Egg casseroles, grits casseroles, sausage and biscuit, muffins, banana bread and fruit.
- Finger sandwiches. Thin, soft, white bread, please. Sounds like a Baptist wedding or a Chi Omega rush tea, but the truth is these bite-sized blessings allow for variety and are an effortless offering to guests calling on the family. As to variety: pimento cheese, egg salad, tuna salad, turkey salad, cream cheese assortments and more. (Stay away from the ham salad; it will be made eventually from the leftover sliced hams.) Just squares, rectangles and triangles. Save your daisy cookie-cutter for the PTA supper.
- Tea-totaling or not, these people need liquids: bottles of water, jugs of sweet tea, soft drinks (make that Coke in the South), and coffee and cream. You decide if alcohol is appropriate. Scotch, bourbon, vodka, mixers and wine. Maybe even beer. If you don’t know them well enough to be confident of the answer, you probably should not be around at this time.
- Mourning and the mundane: “Everydayness” requires we address the burdens of the banal. A basket of foil, plastic wrap, Kleenex, toilet tissue, Tupperware, trash bags, paper plates, and more are in order and will save some soul from a trip to the store, unless they are anxious to escape for a breath of fresh air.
- Rooms and rides relief: Offer your guest room to out of town friends and family. Pick up people at the airport. Offer to simply be on call for anything the family needs.
- Kids need love, attention, food they will eat, babysitting and, sadly, sometimes their first funeral suit. Perfect for the friend who can’t cook, but loves to shop.
- “Working the funeral.” That’s what my Aunt Millie always called it. She was gifted at it. Greet people at the family home. Serve coffee. Set up the buffet. There will be dishes to be done, too. Count on it.
Some Notable Quotes: Famous and Infamous:
Moments after Addie Bundren’s death. “Git up now, and put supper on,” pa says. “We got to keep our strength up.” As I Lay Dying: William Faulkner
“‘Wanda Fay you got enough stuff in sight to last one lone woman forever,’ said Bubba Chisom, both his hands around a ham sandwich.” The Optimist’s Daughter: Eudora Welty
“Fore I could get the kids piled back in that car and git on, the food started a gatherin. That side porch was like a parade of Sunday dinners for about an hour.” One Side of a Conversation Between Gracie Dwiggers and Rosetta Bunch About Edna Raoe’s Wake and Funeral, Over the Phone: Ernest Mathew Mickles
“As I drove in she was walking into the house with eggs for breakfast and homemade biscuits ready for baking. Somehow in rural Southern culture, food is always the first thought of neighbors when there is trouble. That is something they can do and not feel uncomfortable. It is something they do not have to explain or discuss or feel self-conscious about. ‘Here, I brought you some fresh eggs for your breakfast. And here’s a cake. And some potato salad. ‘ It means, ‘I love you. And I am sorry for what you are going through and I will share as much of your burden as I can.’ And maybe potato salad is a better way of saying it.” Brother to a Dragonfly: Will D. Campbell
“Where but in the South, I wondered, is such an honorable and enduring tradition still followed so faithfully? Who else says, ‘I’m sorry’ with a cake or a casserole? Some people do, no doubt, for such a fitting and practical tribute could hardly be confined to one region. Still, Southerners have a special knack for tea and sympathy” Side Orders: John Egerton
“There’s something about the closeness of death which has the paradoxical effect of making life fresh and valuable and available.” Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers: Walker Percy
“Now hopping-john was F. Jasmine’s very favorite food. She had always warned them to wave a plate of rice and peas before her nose when was in the coffin, to make certain there was no mistake; for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat, but if she smelled the hoppin-john, and did not stir, then they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead.” The Member of the Wedding: Carson McCullers
“Casseroles particularly seem to suit this time. There is something about rich, cheesy dishes, such as macaroni and cheese, or cheese grits or potato salad, that soothe anxious hearts and gnawing stomachs.
“It is helpful when some food that has been brought can be frozen. There may be an abundance of food the day of the funeral, but out-of-town family and friends may need to be there for several days, and it is a blessed relief to be able to pull something out of the freezer and heat it up.” Food Eases Funeral Reunions:The Atlanta Journal and Constitution: Natalie Dupree
“I been eating leftover funeral food all week. I don’t ever want to see a platter of turkey or ham again,” said Edna. Homemade Sin: Kathy Hogan Trocheck
“I remember when my Daddy died, everybody started vacuuming.” Rhonda Farmer, Providence, KY
“Nothin says lovin’ like something from the oven and…” Pillsbury Advertising slogan
“My family is always on the verge of a funeral.” Anonymous
“My daddy died and I didn’t get no supper that night.” Louise Leonard, Linden, VA
“Well, we call it workin’ a funeral. You know, when 3 or 4 of ‘ya get together and take turns being at the house. One of us would work of the morning, another in the afternoon and at night so there’d always be somebody there to greet people.” Millie Baird, Sturgis, KY
“I have a very vivid memory of something someone brought me when I lost a loved one. I was alone and the doorbell rang. Before I even opened the door, I smelled freshly baked bread and it always lingered with me. The aroma was straight out of the oven and it smelled like they cared.” Lucy Richardson, Atlanta, GA
Mom Barr’s Pound Cake
This recipe was given to me by son-in-law’s mother, Ellie Barr of Charleston, SC. She got it from her mother-in-law, whom the family called, Mom Barr. The story has it that Mom Barr got the recipe decades ago from a woman in Georgetown, SC who was married to a funeral home director. Enough said.
Sour Cream Pound Cake
- 3 cups of sugar
- 2 sticks of softened butter*
- 6 large eggs
- 1 tbsp. vanilla
- 1/4 tsp. soda
- 1-cup sour cream
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 3 cups, sifted cake flour
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream sugar and butter with an electric mixer – until light. Add eggs, one at a time, creaming after each addition. Add vanilla. Dissolve soda into the sour cream. Then fold sour cream, by hand into the creamed mixture. Add salt to the sifted flour. Fold flour, by hand, into the creamed mixture. Pour into a greased and floured tube, bundt or loaf pan. Bake for one hour and 15 minutes or until done. Cool and turn out.
Believe it or not, this cake actually improves in the freezer, which makes it the perfect cake to keep around for unexpected guests, or to send to friends in need of cheering. To freeze: Wrap first in wax paper and place inside a freezer bag or plastic wrap. Freeze for up to 6 months.
*If you know you’re going to make the cake, try to remember to take the butter to soften in advance. The eggs are better for baking if they are at room temperature, but I have found a safer method. Fill a bowl with the eggs and run hot tap water over them. Let them sit for a few minutes and they will come up to room temp.