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.