Drew Robinson is the pitmaster at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q. He previously wrote about why barbecue matters.
My friend John Egerton told me once that sometimes when people have lost a loved one or are in despair all you can do is take them a bowl of potato salad and tell them you’re sorry.
He went on to say, emphatically, that there is great power in that sort of action. John spoke specifically about Southern foodways at that moment, but there was a universal truth in his message. I know from personal experience on the receiving end that is true and it is even more powerful when that compassion is delivered in numbers.
Tragedy has the ability to suffocate us. Like the song says, “Death don’t have no mercy.” Once the grip of devastation gets a hold of us as individuals or as communities it is almost impossible for one individual to pull themselves out of that grip. It is in those times of human frailty that we realize that tragedy strips us of all nutrition. We become devoid of all things that give fertility to our lives in a physical, emotional, or spiritual sense. These are the times when we truly need our community, but they are also the times when we need to understand how we can contribute to our community.
Community is an interesting thing in the sense that as humans, we depend on it to provide a certain sense of our well-being, yet at the same time we struggle to define or reinvent our place in it. Given the opportunity to look at our place and function in our community, people have the chance to see their value because what a community is really composed of is relationships.
In difficult times and when tragedies befall us, it is most important as individuals to reflect on what our relationship is to our community and to fulfill that role by whatever means we have at our disposal. The culinary community has a unique opportunity at those times to be on the front line of trying to help revive and nourish people in need. Food can very quickly comfort and console people and help give them a little strength to start rebuilding or recovering from what has hurt them.
As a cooks and restaurateurs, my partners and I at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q have found ourselves in the position to recently reflect on this very topic when tornados devastated our home state of Alabama. You feel an immediate sense of helplessness when you see mass amounts of acquaintances, friends, and neighbors suddenly stripped of everything. If you are lucky, that helplessness gives way to an involuntary reaction where you just try to do what you know in order to help ease the burden if even just a little bit.
Being in the restaurant business our reaction was to start feeding people. We loaded up our rigs and cooked because that’s what we know how to do. We shared plates of food and handed them out to people who knew how to give medical care, or bring order to chaotic situations, to those who were clearing electrical lines, organizing shelters, and so on. Even more importantly, meals were offered to the people who lost everything. It’s what we know how to do, so that’s why we did it.
Did those meals solve people’s long term problems? No. But the meals eaten around makeshift tables provided a place for everyone to come together and established time for some to begin shoring themselves up to move forward.
It was encouraging to see people use their skills to do what they know; the net result is most important to the community and it is what is most impactful in times of hardship and tragedy. As a cook, it might be thoughtful to try and rebuild someone’s home, but it probably wouldn’t be very helpful if you don’t know anything about home building.
This past spring Egerton’s wisdom pointed us in the right direction. We knew we could offer some potato salad to someone who was in need or hurting and let them know we were sorry for their loss. Food is important and powerful, it helps us remember our place or maybe even redefine our place when that’s what we need the most.
Previously - Filling the void – eating after a funeral and Roasted chicken soup for the banged-up soul
You have a real skill in writing! Haven´t you regarded as writing a book as well as publishing your stuff in a magazine? Best wishes for your excellent articles!
Some actually wondrous work on behalf of the owner of this site, perfectly fantastic subject material .
Just last night I was thinking of the great ways that we use to show love with food when I was a child in Arkansas. Now I am reading you post. Thank you and it has really touched me.
Love the old Southern country tradition of taking dishes and dropping them off for the family and friends of departed loved ones. It means so much to those in grief and gives them a chance to get together over a meal made by those who care about their fellow man. By the way, I've seen the same in the North when I lived there. Seems it's a wonderful tradition most everywhere.
I'm from Iowa and its so true that people are more caring and show it by feeding you. If you need love or want to raise a family the "right" way, just move to the midwest! I think its very touching and it shows people feel your pain and want you to feel protected. Its called being human. Although I do have relatives on my mothers side that are greedy fat hogs and don't think to feed their damn family members but we don't like to talk about them. If you are help feed people than there may be a spot in heaven for you, if you are greedy and don't share then have fun in hell.
In the car coming back from another dreadful meeting at "Compassionate Friends" and during the worst rawness of our grief, the teenage son of a friend of ours out of the blue said "HAM! I'm SO SICK OF HAM! Why is it when someone dies they always bring that damn ham?" Omg, we burst out laughing so hard and then continued to laugh because it felt so good to do it! We just howled. The boy was right though...someone always, gratefully, brings in a ham.
And yes, the macaroni and cheese, too. Keep bringing it all. It helps.
Compassionate Friends meetings have kept my family and I sane after the death of my nephew. For anyone who has lost a child, I highly recommend finding a group near you (check their website). There is no grief like the loss of a child, and everyone at these meetings understand that.
This explains why people reach for that tub of ice cream whenever they feel "troubled".
Its wonderful that in our busy lives, when we hear about a tragedy in a close friends life we can stop and take the time out to prepare something homemade with love. I remember when my grandmother died my friends husband came to the funeral, gave me a hug and asked for a plate of the macaroni and cheese his wife had made because all she makes for him is the boxed stuff. That made my day and everyone else's I told. And you better beleive now she cooks the man a homecooked meal now.
A gift of food is a comfort. Food=love. I miss my mother's special potato salad and her meat loaf. While I have the recipes, I don't have the secret ingredient any more, her love. I ate like a pig at the luncheon after her funeral, both because I was hungry and I was psychologically empty at that awful time. Much better now.
Yes, you will. You'll make her recipes just fine. You'll see.
That's a very touching story.
That was a lovely post; thank you, Mr. Robinson.
I serve up some good 20/20 or a cold 40. If and when I crack one open everyone around me is grateful if I share with them.
I love to eat with mentally challenged people. They get a good meal, it makes me feel better about myself and they are fun to snicker at. Its win-win.
Snicker at you, you moron.
FAREWELL LOVED ONES DINNER
Thank you for this story. Live with Intention, DrBillTothCom/blog
When my mother-in-law died, the funeral service was held at a Methodist church which she did not attend. We had the after-service meal in the basement fellowship hall. I will never forget walking down the stairs and seeing a hallway full of food and a room full of desserts! I love that these are the things we do–and the things we receive–when life and death happen.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus was always with a crowd eating. Food like music bring people of all races, languages, creeds, from babies to the elderly together in joy, or in comfort.
When a beloved aunt was dying in my family several years ago, relatives flew in from all over the country to say goodbye. Many of us were still there for the funeral–and my aunt had been one of the church ladies who had provided home cooked food for funerals in the parish. At her funeral lunch, we were buried in food by other women from the church. It was their way of saying they loved her, and we were all incredibly touched. That gesture meant far more than what the priest said at her funeral or even the flowers that people had sent.
Love to hear stories like this! Thanks for sharing Yvonne.
When my Mother passed away we took her back to her hometown to be buried. She had not lived there since she was a kid, but my Mom's sister still lived there. After her funeral my Aunt's church put on a potluck supper for our family. Everything was delicious and so appreciated. I ate chicken that was very very similar to my Mother's. They were all a much welcome comfort to all of us and we were not even members. Teach your children to do the same.
We need food for strength we need fellowship for endurance. Thus the tradition of bringing a dish when sadness, tragedy, even happiness comes to those we care for. I remember many a pot of soup and fresh bread would come from our kitchen growing up and we kids would have the job of sneaking in (not really) and dropping it off. Now my son asks me why I do the same thing. To be honest I don't know why except I hope my friends know I care.
When my husband's grandmother passed away in a small town in Iowa, we went "home" for the funeral. One of the first places we stopped was his cousin's farm on the edge of town. When we got there, there was a note on the door that said "At the funeral home. Please leave casseroles on the counter and put anything that needs to be cold in the fridge". The door was unlocked and we went in- and were astonished at the array of casseroles and desserts. It seemed that the whole town had stopped by and left something. I was deeply touched by this simple gesture of kindness.
Love to hear stories like this! Thanks for sharing Yvonne.
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