Thursday, June 24, 2010

Relishing the Dead

At Betsy's Beauty Parlor, under the dryers:

Mabel: Did you hear about Virginia? Died in her sleep last night.
Ethel: No! You know, she lost her mind last year, but I didn't realize the end was so close.
Mabel: The family's coming in tomorrow for the funeral on Saturday.
Ethel: I'll get the relish. Do you want fried chicken?
Mabel: Oh, they knew everybody. Better do a casserole so they can freeze it.

Southerners do two things very well: funerals and food. And down here they go hand in hand. The premise is that one must provide a grieving family with food so they won't have to worry with one more thing and thereby starve to death themselves. If someone is ailing in the South, you can tell the status of the sick by the organization of the refrigerator: the more bare it is, the worse the condition. If a freezer has been loaned by a neighbor, then the end is nigh.

Furthermore, there is an unwritten code when it comes to the dish you bring. Cookbooks down here often have entire sections dedicated to "Funeral Food" alone. Close friends and neighbors provide the more perishable dishes, thereby the ones to be eaten first. More distant acquaintances should prepare casseroles or desserts that can be frozen. And the actual dish in which you take your concoction should always be clearly labeled.

The labeling is important for several reasons. It alerts the bereaved as to whom the dish belongs, where it should be returned, and where a thank you note should be sent. Pride (or responsibility, depending on the cook's prowess in the kitchen) is also reflected, and if the bereaved is a widower, it shows him his options for his next mate in a small town.

I wish I was kidding.

Southerners pride themselves deeply on these rituals, but one always slips through the cracks. I remember a story of, well, I can't remember her name, so I'll call her Miss Essie. Miss Essie was coming along in years, but when her preacher's mother died, she wanted to participate in the Bringing of the Food. She called a family member over to her house to pick up some fried chicken. On the way home, the family member quickly realized that said fried chicken was actually a bucket of the Colonel's, the bucket thrown away and the chicken beautifully presented in one of Miss Essie's McCarty bowls. Clearly labeled on the bottom with masking tape, of course.

One of my family's favorite funeral dishes is Scandinavian Relish. Why it's called Scandinavian, I will never know. Perhaps it was invented when all dishes had to have some sort of nationality, like Swedish Chicken and Russian Creme. Either way, I like the crunch and freshness of it, and the vinegar preservative allows it to keep for a very long time. Of course you can use all fresh vegetables if you want; this is simply the recipe that has been handed down.

We like to prepare meals according to color - the more color, the better the meal - so this salad goes along well with any casserole Ethel or Mable could throw at the family of the deceased.

1 can English peas
1 can shoe peg (kernel) corn
1 can green beans cut small
1 jar pimento
1 chopped green pepper
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onions
1 can black beans (optional Fran addition)
1 bunch cilantro (optional Fran addition - to taste)

2/3 cup sugar
¾ cup oil
¾ cup vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper

1. Drain vegetables well (helps to use a colander) and pour into presentation bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, mix together sugar, oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper.
3. Pour mixture over vegetables and refrigerate.
4. Keeps for weeks – another good funeral dish.

Beauty parlor photo courtesy of ParcProvence.



Made by Lena