On many a summer Sunday morning my grandmother would head to the chicken house, snatch up a happy (until that moment) hen, and then wring its little neck.
She would then dip it in scalding water, pluck its drenched feathers, wash it, rake out the innards, take a knife to it, and fry it up for the frequent Sunday trip to her brother’s house for lunch after church.
My Uncle Charlie’s house backed up to a trickling creek where all us cousins would run and romp all afternoon while the grown-ups sat in the yard under his towering oak and talked about the typical southern topics of the day: family, weather, crops, neighbors, politics, FOOD.
Food is defining in the south. And it’s particularly a pecking order (forgive the pun) phenomenon among southern women. “Their identity, their totem pole of the Southern female,” says food writer and showman Alton Brown, “was based upon how you baked, primarily and above all. I still have a great-aunt, now in her nineties, who will not give up her coconut cake recipe, and no one within fifty miles will make a coconut cake without drawing their curtains, for fear that she’ll know.”
How many times have I heard my Mother say, “I took a chess pie. There wasn’t a piece left!” And oft was the whispered conversation I would hear in the kitchen of the church basement between two ladies setting up for the obligatory pot lucks which were chartered for almost EVERY occasion amongst our flock of Methodists. “Did you get any of Susan’s caramel cake? Mine never comes out like that. I do not know how she does hers.” Or “I don’t know why Carol always bring that green bean casserole. Why, she takes half of it home most of the time!”
And heaven forbid (for the sake of the deceased’s chances of getting in) that you take anything “store bought” to a wake! In her hilarious book The Sweet Potato Queen’s Book of Love author Jill Conner Browne preaches about the holiness of funeral food. “One of the queens said there was a lady in her hometown who got up every morning of the world and fried a chicken first thing so that just in case somebody died that day, she could be on-the-spot with first-class funeral food.” I remember reading that and thinking that could have been my own grandmother! To this she adds, “If there’s a balm in Gilead, I’d be willing to bet it’s made with cream of mushroom soup, Velveeta, or Cool Whip. Nearly all funeral food contains at least one of these staples.” These items were EVER present in the McPherson family pantry. It was practically a law.
In the south food is our cultural currency. It’s our history. It’s how we communicate, how we express ourselves, how we show affection (or in the case of The Help, hostility). I mean, why do we think they call it SOUL food. It emanates from the very nature of who we are.
At every occasion in our little neck of the woods, food is the gift we give to each other. Barbecue, baked beans, and blackberry pie are more than just shared dishes: they’re the ingredients of our LIFE together.