It would be unseemly to boast about the exceptional quality of the funeral food that arrived at Bunny’s house after the passing of my father-in-law. That would indicate there is a pecking order in the desirability of funeral food, which there decidedly is not. Just as the pawns lie down with the kings in death, the pimento cheese stands proudly next to the triple chocolate bundt cake in the funeral food hierarchy.
However, I will say that the ladies of Knoxville displayed a certain level of brilliance. Funeral food begins arriving the second the departed has been carted off to the funeral home, or in this case off to the University of Tennessee Medical Center where Paul donated his body to science. Bunny barely made it back to the house before the knocks at the back door began. Here came beer-braised beef, cheese grits casserole and creamed spinach. Here came the much beloved pimento cheese, chicken salad and apple cake. Here came the curried artichoke rice salad, the cream cheese coffee cake and, in a tour de force, the chocolate chip cookies with both crushed malted milk balls and Ovaltine. It is very difficult for the bereaved to pick at their food in the South.
Bunny does not lose control of her kitchen lightly. And it lasted about one day. Saturday morning, she cracked. “We’re going to have at least 20 people here tonight for supper,” she said. “I am going to make shrimp salad, pasta salad, deviled eggs and tuna salad.” Please keep in mind that there is enough food in the house to feed the entire University of Tennessee football team for the entire season.
Horrified, her sister, Brenda, stepmother Sandra and I stepped in. “You are to do no such thing!” we said. “Just let us take care of everything.” Daggers. If Bunny could send daggers from her eyes directly to our hearts she would have. But we are also wise
Southern women and it did not take a second to realize that a food therapy session was about to begin. Bunny needed to make something. She needed some small measure of control. Shrimp salad was control. We stepped back. We couldn’t help ourselves. We started to laugh. Laughter through tears is our favorite emotion. We had a good laugh. A belly cruncher.
Well, just let me say that the knocks at the back door didn’t stop all weekend. And neither did the friends of Paul and Susan who stopped by to offer a hug, lend a shoulder and provide more Kleenex when appropriate. Somehow in the South, funerals can be oddly life affirming. They are gatherings of family and friends, sharing beloved memories of the departed and copious amounts of food.
By Monday, we were on to hamburgers on a grill that Paul had probably not used in five years. Brenda’s husband, Jim, fixed what was broken, got more propane, fired it up in the rain and grilled his heart out. I need to pause here to say that the single best grilled beef tenderloin I have ever eaten came off that grill at the hands of Paul Harbin. It was good to have the grill back in action.
I am fairly certain that I gained five pounds in four days. And I can say with certainty that we ate better than at any four-star restaurant in New York City. A huge part of honoring the dead in the South is to nourish those left behind, both spiritually and literally. A knock at the door. A casserole dish. Funeral food.
Cook according to package directions:
1 cup grits, quick (not instant!)
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 roll garlic cheese (Kraft)
1 stick butter
Stir until melted.
Mix in another bowl:
2 beaten eggs
¼ cup milk
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Red pepper to taste
Add to grits mixture
Put in a 1.5 quart casserole and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour.
(Note: Inexplicably, Kraft stopped making the garlic cheese rolls, although I include it in the recipe delivered to the back door in case any of you are hoarding it. If you cannot find it, substitute 1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese and 2 tablespoons sauteed minced garlic.)