A Moving Feast

| September 17, 2007 | 5 Comments
  • 5 Comments

I flew to North Carolina last week for my grandmother’s funeral. She was 87 and she couldn’t do anything for herself by the time she died. A woman named Tonya would come by the house every day, and later the nursing home, and feed her and bathe her and turn on Andy Griffith for her to watch. Tonya was with her when she died, and the day before that when my grandmother had said, “Hold me,” it was Tonya who pulled down the bed rails and put her solid bronze arms around my grandmother’s soft, fleshy ones.

When I stepped off the plane in Raleigh, the air was hot and thick and I wished I’d changed out of my jeans before I left the airport. My brother picked me up, along with my mother and my sister, and when I got into his truck they started telling me about all the food people had brought over.

“You would not believe how much food we have back at the house,” my mom began, shaking her head so that her graying hair bounced against her forehead. “Fried chicken, pecan pie,” — she pronouces it PEE-can — “chess pie, potato salad, cole slaw. We have enough to feed an army.”

My sister took up the litany, counting the dishes off on her fingers. “Barbecued chicken. Deviled eggs. Chocolate cake.” Even in the darkened car, I could see her eyes sparkle, but not with tears. Eating feels good, even when everything else feels bad.

We spent much of the ride home talking about what they’d eaten the night before, and which neighbor or church friend or circle member had brought what dish. When we got home, everyone peeled off to bed but me and mom. We cut into a chocolate sheet cake made from Duncan Hines mix and store bought frosting. I ate a square of it standing up in my grandparents’ red kitchen, and then cut off another small sliver just to even things out. It was fluffy and fresh and delicious. It reminded me of birthday party cake from when I was a kid.

I read over a piece of paper on the kitchen table that listed all the food that had been dropped off and by whom. The funeral house prints these forms up and brings them to the deceased’s house, along with a podium with a light attached to it and a book that sits on top of it for visitors to sign.

The next morning, I woke up and took a shower. I put on a dress I’d bought with money my grandmother sent me for my birthday, and shoes I’d bought the previous summer for my grandfather’s funeral. We drove to the cemetary and sat down on chairs covered in scratchy crushed blue velvet. My grandparents’ ashes had been comingled — that is the official term for mixing them together — and they were held in a wooden box engraved with intertwining hearts and the words “Together Forever.” They were both blessed and later buried in that hot, muggy air, and even as I cried, I couldn’t help but notice that the preacher used a word I’d never heard before — undergird. In the car on the way home I asked my brother and sister if anyone had ever heard it before. No one had.

Back home, my cousins immediately set about heating up the food. Most of us crowded into the kitchen; some of us were hungry, some tried to help, but I think most of us just didn’t know what else to do. My cousin Sheila hadn’t been able to sleep the night after my grandmother died, so she got up at 4:30 in the morning and baked a pound cake.

When we finally sat down to eat, we had three kinds of chicken (roasted, barbecued, and fried), deviled eggs, sandwiches, baked ham, yeast rolls, ham rolls, three kinds of potato salad, cole slaw, corn pudding, rice pilaf, broccoli casserole, asparagus casserole topped with Pringles (I kid you not), lasagna, baked beans, bread-and-butter pickles, and chicken salad. We all sat around in the living room with plates on our knees, sipping sweet tea, catching up with people we hadn’t talked to in a year, complaining about the heat and humidity.

There were just as many desserts as anything else. Lemon chess pie, pecan pie, chocolate cake, the most marvelous chocolate fudge pie (it’s basically gooey, nearly-cooked brownie batter in a flaky pie shell), pound cake, banana pudding. What we didn’t eat, we wrapped back up and put out again for dinner that night, after the memorial service at the church, after I stood in the receiving line and met all the people who had fed us.

Grandma’s Fried Chicken
Serves 4

Ingredients:
1 whole chicken, cut into legs, thighs, breasts, and wings
buttermilk (optional)
flour
salt and pepper to taste
Crisco

Method:
In my grandmother’s words: “I’m not the fryer in the family,” she started out by saying. “That’s Margaret [her sister]. But I’ve fried a lot of chicken. What you want to do is salt and pepper and flour the chicken. Teri [her cousin] says you should soak it in milk before you flour it. He brought us some fried chicken one time and it was mighty good, but I don’t know. Then you want to cook it in hot grease. You can use Crisco or you can use the liquid, it doesn’t matter. We always used Crisco. But anyway, you want to cook it in enough hot grease to cover the chicken.

“Daddy called himself the Master Fryer, and Mother always said, ‘I guess you are. All you do is stand there and fry it and I have to do all the rest of it and all the cleaning up.’ We had fried chicken every Sunday morning for breakfast with biscuits.

“But anyway. The smaller the chicken the better. It’s done when you can stick a fork in easily and no blood appears. Maybe 20 minutes, but watch it. Then just put it on a paper towel to drain.”

Additional instructions:
All measurements are approximate because you really only need enough to suit you. Cover the chicken in buttermilk for a few hours, up to overnight. Pat it good and dry, then salt and pepper it to taste and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess. Or, you can toss the flour in a paper bag, season it to your liking (cayenne adds a nice touch) and then toss the chicken parts in one by one.

Heat the Crisco about halfway up a cast iron skillet until it’s melted and a small piece of bread bubbles and fries on contact. Then add the pieces, one or two at a time to prevent the oil from cooling down. Turn them after about 5-8 minutes, depending on size and type of meat; keep in mind dark meat needs longer to cook than white meat. Drain on a plate covered with paper towels and serve hot. Also good cold the next day.

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About the Author ()

I grew up in the South where it was common for a meal to include more platters of food than people. I survived on a childhood of sausage biscuits, fried chicken, fried clams, ham rolls, shrimp cocktail, pickled peaches, homemade ice cream, and lemon tarts, and I thought that getting your tomatoes from a paper bag your neighbor left on the doorstep or knowing the name of your favorite corn was normal (Silver Queen was mine). Now I'm a San Francisco-based freelance food writer who's been published in Olive magazine, Best Food Writing, the Oakland Tribune, The Onion, Northside San Francisco and other local publications. As most of my attempts to reproduce childhood favorites in my own kitchen have ended in crushing disappointment, I eat out four to five times a week and cook healthy meals when I'm at home.
  • Jennifer Maiser

    Really great post. Reminds me of my family (and probably most families) in that food is the absolute underpinning of most things that occur.

    Undergird – thanks for writing about that word. I had to look it up:

    UNDERGIRD.
    to form the basis or foundation of : STRENGTHEN, SUPPORT

  • wendygee

    I could salt the fried chix with my tears…your post sure made me cry…it is interesting because when I am dealing with loss I can’t eat at all…guess it can go either way…

  • Tea

    Oh my dear, what a beautiful and moving post. I’m teary as well (and that last line, poignant perfection). I think you’ve done your grandmother–and all those good-hearted community cooks–proud.

  • Tiffany

    Absolutely beautiful. I love the way we as people comfort each other with food–we give each other nourishment and from nourishment comes strength. So poignant and beautiful!

  • Teri

    Thanks, Catherine. A wonderful evocation of a family occasion. As your Grandmother and my cousin would have said, “Wasn’t it grand?”