A Funeral Without a Casserole is Just a Funeral

Southern funerals have always been equal parts family reunion and social gathering. I think it dates to the days when Southern families were so spread out and isolated.  It was a chance to reconnect and be social even if it was a sad event. It was time to serve those who needed it the most.

You can’t have a social gathering without food whether it was a cotillion or a funeral. Funerals were where the “church ladies” came in and ran the show.  They may not be allowed to be preachers or deacons but in times of need, they are the backbone of the church.  All the while, wearing their pearls and white gloves, their little pillbox hats on their blue-white heads.  They all seemed to smell of lilac or gardenia and had names like Miss Agnes or Miss Minnie. 

I know every section of the US has its own set of traditions, but the South knows…or knew how to do “grief” food.  With the gathering of friends and out-of-town family, the grieving family didn’t need to worry about preparing food.  This was a time to tell stories and relate memories associated with the deceased. Maybe even tell a joke or two if the dearly departed is the butt of it.  “You remember when ole Earl blew up his still?  Told him he ought not to hide it in the chicken coop.  Chicken feathers was flyin’ everywhere.” 

It’s not a time for the grieving family members to be planning menus.  Enter close friends and the “church ladies.”  Bless their little blue-haired heads.

Platters of food begin to arrive before the body is cold.  A half dozen versions of fried chicken, everyone’s Grandma “So and So’s” deviled eggs, mac and cheese, and “forty-leven” different deserts ranging from red velvet cake to banana puddin’.  It is as if they had prepared ahead of time just in case someone died. Do good Baptists have a casserole frozen and stashed away just in case?

“You know, old Earl looked kinda peeked at church Sundee.  I’m gonna make this caramel cake usin’ Grandma Earlean’s recipe just in case he kicks the bucket.”

Comfort food in a person’s time of need.  There is a reason comfort food is called comfort food.  It makes you feel better in the worst situations until you step on the scales or feel that sudden “There’s an elephant sittin’ on my chest” feeling.  This is of no concern to the church ladies and when the body has made its final six foot trip, there is room for one more meal. 

Doesn’t matter that the grieving family can’t close the refrigerator door for the casserole dishes or that both the microwave and convection oven are filled with six different versions of the same protein.   The post burial meal must be observed.

More mainstays are laid out. Fried chicken, again, or maybe, baked ham, more deviled eggs, more mac and cheese, a dozen congealed salads, what we called Jell-O salad, and several different potato salads.  Depending upon the time of year, fried okra or fresh creamed corn might find a place at the long tables covered in white linen tablecloths. 

A church lady directs us down both sides of the table as soon as the grieving family is served and settled…and  in a stringy, sharp voice and pointing a white-gloved finger, “Y’all the desert table and sweet tea are over yonder.”  She nudges me, “You better hurry if you want some of my chicken pot pie. I knows how much you like it! And get you some of Miss Sally’s banana puddin’ before it gets gone.”  Can’t fault her, Miss Mamie was correct.

How many casseroles can there be?” Several dozen casseroles of different types it would seem.  I’m sure the church ladies formed a telephone chain,  in fact, in distant times, they may have been on the same party line. “I’m gonna do a green bean casserole if I can find that can of Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and a can of those fried onions.  Why don’t you do broccoli?”  Or squash, or funeral potatoes, or chicken pot pie, or if someone is creative or from the low country, chicken bog.

This is the way it should be, comfort food for the grieving, but something has gone amiss. 

I found myself at a recent funeral.  I could not believe it…I refuse to believe it! 

Chicken provided by KFC and Bojangles.  What?  They didn’t even take it out of the box. Hard ole biscuits and that watery potato salad. Slaw so sweet it set your teeth on edge. I didn’t even try the tea. I know we live in different times but this…this…this is sacrilege. “Blasphemy I say!!!!” And this was in a Southern Baptist institution. 

Not even one, three-quart casserole dish with a name taped to the bottom.  What have we come to?  What have we become? Where is the banana pudding?

I can’t believe the lack of respect shown for the dearly departed family. I didn’t know the family. I just stopped in for the food.

More of Don Miller’s ramblings may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3gtYqKmk1eSIHBoTiQc5rg12E6_7eZY6AHLuMDN323mC4bdmKMRfn-fKY

The image is of a traditional “funeral” potato casserole.

Food Should Taste Like the Past

“Ours is a region whose food carries with it the burdens of our past — a history of slavery and racism, long-lasting, outdated stereotypes of our people, and a tenuous political landscape.” -www.thrilist.com  The New Southern Cuisine: Don’t Call It Fusion

Our past IS fraught with burdens when it comes to race…even our present.  Somehow our food rises above it all.  Don’t believe me? Go to a Baptist Church covered dish dinner or a hole in the wall diner named “Momma Ester’s Café”.  European, West African and Native American foodways merge into a superhighway that became known in the Seventies as soul food…one of the few positives of the Columbian Exchange.  It was Southern fusion before the word was cool. 

Over a year ago, before our lives changed with the “corona”, my bride and I sat down at a restaurant for a Sunday brunch to celebrate our wedding anniversary and contemplated our dish selections.  This was before the need for masks, social distancing or arguments over rights and vaccines.

At the urging of my bride, we decided to sit outside in the shade and enjoy the warm breezes along with a Bloody Mary or two.  It was late June.  Even mountain breezes in late June sometimes feel like the blast from a Bessemer furnace.

This was one of those “sometimes”.  Winter had gone straight to full on summer.  The “bacon infused” Bloody Mary with the okra pod garnish had just enough bite to increase the perspiration forming across my nose and to a greater extent, settling into my underwear.   For some reason the hot wind reminded me of the past before air conditioning was cool, when a window fan was an ineffective defense against the hot and humid air.

The restaurant was one of those neo-Southern cookin’ places boasting traditional Southern dishes with a “twist.”  Judging from the prices I worried it might be a nouveau-riche Southern cookin’ place although no one would accuse me of being a member of the nouveau-riche…not near Beverly Hillbillies nouveau-riche but it was my anniversary, and my bride was worth any price.

I was hopeful as I perused their menu.  There were plenty of selections featuring biscuits and deeply fried anything.  There were collards cooked to death with ham and bacon grease, cornbread battered fried green tomatoes, and dishes featuring cracklins’…bacon bits…not the real ones, pig skin fried crisp.

Fried chicken with an acceptable twist, waffles.  Sounded tasty with maple syrup drizzled over it.  What worried me were dishes including fried cauliflower bites or smashed avocado on toast points.  I don’t remember many dishes from the past including cauliflower in any form but right there in the menu was a picture of a vegan taco with both fried cauliflower and avocado wedges.  I figured it looked better than it might taste. I like cauliflower and avocado but I had decided today was not a day to eat healthy.

I saw one immediate positive. No dishes involving kale.

One appetizer piqued my interest.  Deep fried BBQ stuffed egg rolls.  Recipe must be from Southern China.  Didn’t matter where it came from, it was good, but didn’t speak to the ghosts of my past.  Not sure I ate an egg roll until I was out of college.  Now BBQ? That is something else entirely.

Some of  this neo-Southern cuisine is described as fusion cookin’ but it seems to me, the food I consumed as a child was fusion.  We ate what became known as soul food.  Food heavily seasoned with salt pork and bacon grease, the heavy use of starches and cornmeal. We ate soul food before it was cool and before we could be accused of racial appropriation. We ate soul food until our arteries seized up.

I grew up in an area where no one of any race really ate “high on the hog.”  We didn’t know we were poor, and in most ways that counted, we weren’t.  Money was not one of the ways that counted.  Even the “landed rich” didn’t have an extra two nickels to rub together until after harvest season, so most of us ate like we were poor.  Sometimes the poor knew better how to eat than the rich.

Chicken, pork, and fresh caught fish seemed to be staples.  Not much expensive beef unless it was from the “butt end of the cow”, cubed round steak dusted with flour and fried crisp or chicken fried and smothered in milk gravy.  I didn’t know you could order steak anyway but done to death until I graduated from college. That doesn’t mean we didn’t eat well; we just didn’t eat a lot of steak.  Catfish fried with a cornbread batter heavy with black pepper, chicken battered and fried in lard.  The skin crisp and the inside moist and tender. Pork chops fried and smothered with milk gravy, the renderings spooned over biscuits.

Green beans, butter beans, peas, and collard greens cooked forever plus one day, cooked with fat back or bacon  Maybe some unrecognizable pork bits in and amongst it.  Seasoned with a bit of salt and sugar, a finely chopped hot pepper to add a bit of heat and cider vinegar for a little tartness.   Pinto beans simmered all day with hog jowls, ham hocks or neck bones until the meat fell off the bone. Chopped onion and a pone of cornbread to go with it.  Sweet potatoes made sweeter with butter and sugar or syrup. All seasoning guided by the hands of the ghosts of women long dead. 

Simple food seasoned well and prepared in cast iron pots and pans dating from before the First World War and cut up with a knife that had to be seventy years old.  Soul food can’t help but taste of the past.

My grandmother and mother were not known for their culinary abilities.  They did okay, I didn’t starve. My grandmother was more concerned about the great outdoors and growing the food although there were memorable dishes. Her creamed corn, chicken pot pie, “cooter” soup and peanut butter cookies.  

My mother was a textile shift worker and I remember dining on Birdseye TV Dinners and fried bologna sandwiches often.  Mom did cook on weekends, spaghetti on Saturday nights and her own trinity, BBQ chicken, pot roast, or fried chicken on Sunday. 

My grandmother’s sisters and my mother’s sister can put on a spread.  So could their in-laws.

I am reminded of a late summer feast put on by my Uncle James’ wife, Aunt Mary Hannah and their two daughters. She was a slight woman crippled by polio. Braces and crutches did not affect her abilities in her kitchen.  It always amazed me how happy she could be.  Her freckled face always had a smile.

The summer season was drawing to an end, the hayin’ was done and in the barn, corn pulled and stored in the cribs, the tomatoes, squash, and beans almost played out.  Those huge John Deere tractors safely tucked and serviced in their garage.  I was headed back to school and football practice as were my cousins who, with me, provided the summer labor.  We sat under a shade tree in slat backed chairs we moved from her dining room and ate off rough boards set on sawhorses covered with linen tablecloths.

Part of my daily pay was a midday meal which usually consisted of Vienna sausages or deviled ham, maybe sardines and saltine crackers, a “dope”, and a Moon Pie.  But one late summer day, the midday meal was worth the hell of those hay and corn fields.

Pan fried chicken, butter beans cooked with chopped up ham, creamed corn running with home churned butter, corn bread battered okra fried crisp, squash casserole, deviled eggs to die for, potato salad, and biscuits.  All seasoned well, with a smidge of this, a pinch of that, a tad of something else, until it tasted right and the voices from our past whispered, “That will do.”

Every vegetable or starch grown in their garden. The chicken, ham, and eggs from their coop or sty.  The only dishes or ingredients foreign were the sweet tea we washed it down with and the bananas and vanilla wafers in the banana pudding we finished it with.  We could have stayed local and washed it down with buttermilk from their cow and eaten watermelon from their field. It was food fit for fieldworkers or a king. That one meal encompassing all of the different foodways.

Soul food…food with a soul.  Food with a past going back centuries brought from lands far away and land close by, somehow merged in a way the people who brought them should fuse. 

Food should unite us all. Food prepared by hands who were taught by ghostly hands from the past in implements passed down by generations.  Food should taste like the past.

May be an image of text that says 'DON'S DAILY DOSE CONO "Neither sugar nor salt tastes particularly good by itself. Each is at its best when used to season other things. Love is the same way. Use it to "season" people." Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration'

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Spinnin’ in Her Grave

I’m sure my grandmother is looking down from the great beyond and shaking her head.  I’m guessing what is left of her earthly body is spinnin’ in her grave.  As soon as she heard that can opener, I visualize a side eyed look below her furrowed brow.  Not only am I cooking canned black-eyed peas I’m serving canned collards to go with them.  If she were still alive, I’m sure I would be disenfranchised. 

My grandmother, Nannie, was not known for her cooking.  She wasn’t into exotic food…I don’t think I ate a pizza until I went off to college.  Pizza…exotic?  Cooter Stew was about as exotic as she got.  But there were lines she would never cross and peas with collards from a can was a line in concrete. 

Peas and collards fit right in with her idea of utilitarian food, with cornbread and a raw onion of course.  Oh, and some of Aunt Alta’s chow chow. Bless my soul, I had forgotten that. Nannie’s meals were made to fortify you for a long day in the field.  Exotic foods weren’t known to stick to your ribs.

In her small kitchen dried black-eyed peas from her fields would have been put in the Dutch oven to soak the night before, picked over to remove shells or gravel that might have “snuck” in.  Drained and rinsed, they would have returned to the Dutch oven along with onions, ham hocks, and seasonings and allowed to slow simmer in water and get to know each other for the next four or five hours.  When the ham hocks were tender, they would be removed, and the meat picked from the bone and fat and returned to the peas. 

Well before the pickin’, fresh collards from her garden would have been washed and rinsed repeatedly, chopped awaiting placement into another Dutch oven.  There they would join up with sauteed, in bacon grease, onion and chopped ham, some broth, apple cider vinegar, and red pepper flakes.  These would hang together until cooked to death. 

An hour before the meal was ready, a cast iron frying pan with a dollop of Crisco would be placed in the old stove to become screaming hot before corn bread batter was poured into it and put back in the oven to cook and brown.  I can remember the sizzle the batter made when it hit the grease and have a mental vision of a tanned and creased, flour-streaked cheek.  I also remember the corn bread to be a tad dry but something to mop the pot likker from my bowl with. 

Tea so sweet it made your teeth ache or fresh buttermilk would wash down the meal.

All told, she spent the better part of half a day to get the meal on the table…which is why I will open a can.  My bride will cook her special brand of cornbread, better than my grandmothers, moister at least…and I’ll mop up my pot likker with it.  I’ll keep the collards and peas a bit healthier and a lot less tasty, all-in hopes of seeing another New Year’s Day or two. We may oven fry some pork chops…the other white meat.

It is about traditions, I reckon Southern traditions in this case.  It is about honoring the past.  As I have quoted before, William Faulkner’s line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

Peas swelling as they cook for luck, greens for money, pork because hogs are always moving forward as they forage, and cornbread for gold is a long running tradition…as is cornbread running in butter. 

In the South, how the tradition began involves two stories of note. Not sure either is true. According to one, during Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War, “bummers” left behind peas and salt pork thinking it was nothing more than animal feed.  Southerners gave thanks for having even that gracious little to get through the winter.  I have my doubts about the story.  It makes no sense to leave even animal feed behind.  It does make for a good story and a reason to celebrate.

According to the second, and I find this more likely, black-eyed peas were a symbol of emancipation for African Americans who were officially freed on New Year’s Day, 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation.  As the story goes peas were all they had to eat, and it became a symbol.  Again, I am unsure of the story but know former slaves initiated the idea for adding rice to the peas along with bacon, onion, and spices, giving us Hoppin’ John.  That is a good thing whether the story is true or not and has become a favorite Southern tradition of mine.

Yes, the South does have traditions we are not likely to allow to die.  Some I wish would.  Peas and collards isn’t one of them even from a can.  Be sure and eat your peas and collards. 

I hope you have a healthy and prosperous New Year.

Visit Don Miller’s Author’s Page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR12bCTU7L4-4kWnHyS1zoacryFywuXQm_mLnMXCkCldT08Goh0UKW8dkZY