Episcopalians know funeral food. Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays wrote eloquently and hilariously about it in Being Dead Is No Excuse: the Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. There are certain things that are permissible and even encouraged and some things that are not.
Any of the sandwich salads are encouraged: egg salad, chicken salad (preferably with grapes and pecans), tuna salad. They should be spread on crustless bread and cut in a variety of shapes. Alternating wheat and white bread is required so as to not have too boring a platter presentation.
Cucumber sandwiches are a must. You simply cannot have a proper Southern funeral reception without them. Cheese straws or cheese wafers are always a good idea. A tasteful cheese platter with clusters of grapes is always appreciated. Miniature beaten biscuits with shaved ham. On the sweet side, tea breads such as banana and cranberry walnut are good. Ditto pecan and chess tarts. Lemon squares are always popular.
Items that are not appropriate (although proper breeding will always prevent the reception committee from commenting on these in any way that might be construed as disparaging): potato chips, fried chicken, barbecue, anything served on a paper plate (silver only, please), sub sandwiches, M&Ms or any other loose candy in a bowl (although if you put a silver spoon in the bowl you might get away with it). Cocktail weenies are borderline. They’d better be in a silver chafing dish.
This may seem like a lot of snobby silliness, but there’s a reason Southern women take their funeral food so seriously. It’s the ultimate complement to the departed and their families. In common language, we just like to put on a nice spread. Even in their grief, I can tell you that the families of the recently passed on notice when a nice platter of ham biscuits hits the table.
I am thinking about this today because about an hour ago I found out that one of our most revered members at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church died this morning. Even as I write this, the ladies of the church are furiously clearing out the tables from Otey Hall where the bazaar will be held next weekend and are setting up for a funeral reception for Larry Kirk’s family. Soon an e-mail will go out from Claire, our parish administrator, offering the privilege of bringing funeral food to St. Paul’s. The ladies will respond. Silver will be polished. Lace will be ironed. Mounds of chicken salad will be made and assembled into perfect tea sandwiches.
About 800 miles to the north, another funeral or memorial service will be getting underway just about the time we start Larry’s. This will be for C.J. Smith at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. C.J. was the wife of an old friend, Andy Cassel, and she died of breast cancer. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Jewish funeral, but I imagine the women of the synagogue are equally fussy. It might be bagels, lox, whitefish and blintzes. But the sentiment is the same. The ultimate complement to the departed and her family. Those ladies might call it a mitzvah, a good deed often performed out of religious conviction.
So, fairly quickly I will head to the Publix to get Pepperidge Farm thin-sliced bread (really the only kind for finger sandwiches), Japanese cucumbers (no seeds), and cream cheese. I may make Wanda Woolen’s curried chicken salad, too. It will make me feel better.
Wanda Woolen’s Curried Chicken Salad
2 large chicken breasts, cooked and finely chopped (approximately two cups)
1 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons curry powder
¼ cup diced golden raisins
1 cup finely diced Granny Smith apple (peeled, cored, and rinsed with Fruit Fresh)
½ cup finely diced celery
1 tablespoon minced scallion or shallot
1 teaspoon salt
Sliced, finely chopped almonds may be added if desired
Mix all ingredients except chicken thoroughly. Stir chicken into mixture. Refrigerate at least four hours, preferably overnight.
Trim crusts from 40 slices of whole wheat or white bread. Spread with chicken salad and slice into three equal fingers.
Yield: 20 whole sandwiches, or 60 finger sandwiches.