Once upon a time, someone died.
Not only did that person die, but also they died in the South.
Across town, nine church ladies are going about their business when one after another, they get the call. Each one reaches for the phone.
“Dorothy Simpson died”
That is all need be said. In a matter of moments, these brave little old ladies are filling the aisles of Winn Dixie or Piggly Wiggly or Kroger. Buggies are being filled with chicken, potatoes, crackers, cheeses, watermelons, corn on the cob, butter and every cream soup known to man. Their mission is clear. The evil villain grief can only be fought with one weapon. It is the job of these nine women to carry out their gluttonous plan. It is a burden they carry gladly for the deceased. Their food is bought and they hurry home to begin cooking.
Later that night, one of these women gets a call from another.
A frightening hesitation, before “Myrtle forgot to get the ham.”
Jean puts down the real butter she is creaming into a stick of Crisco and picks up her glass of sweet tea. She takes a long thoughtful swig of the tea. She chews on the sugar granules thoughtfully as she comes up with a plan.
“Alright, Elsie. Jack has to deliver tomatoes to all the people in the church directory tomorrow, but when he gets back, we’ll go first thing and get the ham. But this means that you have to make the congealed salad because I won’t have time to come back and get mine.”
“Okay, Jean, I can do that.”
“Do you have the gelatin, crushed pineapple, sour cream and cherries?
“Okay, then Elsie, I leave the Jell-O salad in your hands. I’ll do my best to get the ham on such short notice.”
“If you can’t get a ham, this will be the first visitation in the history of Springhill Baptist to not have one to feed the family. Dorothy would never forgive us.”
“Yes, Elsie, I realize a lot is riding on this. I will not fail. This is for Dorothy.”
My father’s family has been in the state of Georgia since it got its name. These people practically bleed bacon grease and cornbread. In addition to the southern code that they lived by, there were a lot of them in the family so I remember attending a good number of funerals growing up.
I have vivid memories of my grandmother, perched on a stool in more than one deceased family member’s kitchen; quietly judging- I mean overseeing the food deliveries. One thing about death in the South – you eat well.
It wasn’t just family deaths that needed coordinating by my grandmother. It was also friend deaths. I had the following conversation with my grandmother multiple times:
“You know my friend Mildred?”
Shake my head, “no.”
“You know, Mildred from my Sunday school class.”
Shake my head, “no”.
“You know, the gray-headed one.”
Oh, the gray headed one.
“Well, she died today so we have to get over to the Winn Dixie.”
Lining the buffet table was always an array of chicken casseroles. Chicken casseroles are a lot like snow flakes…I’ve never seen two exactly the same. They are generally the same, but every good southern woman has one or two tweaks to make their chicken unique. But no matter what recipe differences there may be, they all show up when someone is “going home”. That is the chicken casserole’s finest hour. That is the job it was meant for. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that, in the South, chicken casserole is the official food of grief.
The dish is so prevalent in the secret underbelly that is the Southern covered dish code, that it often times shows up at your doorstep prior to you receiving notification of the death…as an omen of sorts.
You might be just starting your day when you open the front door to find a chicken casserole and a bag of fresh garden tomatoes sitting on your front porch. If you do, you should start making some calls.
Someone has died.
And when they do, those nine church ladies are ready to spring into action at a moments notice. After all, blessed are the grieving, for they will receive congealed salad.