Upon reflection, 2019 wasn’t one of the high points of my life. In July, my mother-in-law in Ohio died after a long illness. Three weeks later, I flew to north Louisiana, where we placed my mother in hospice care.
Mother died in November, capping a relatively short period of decline. She made it alone nearly two years after losing Daddy, longer than we expected considering their remarkable 73-year marriage. After his death, Mother took to wrapping herself in his Louisiana State University blanket and increased her attention toward TV sports, especially the New Orleans Saints and including Alabama coach†Nick Saban when he wasn’t playing LSU.
There is a particular loneliness when you outlive your peers. My parents had seen the passing of siblings and many friends of their great generation. Still, visitors and telephone calls allowed Mother to keep in touch from her nursing home suite, even though she used a wheelchair and was mostly deaf.
As with many a Southern woman, her language was food. Mother plied visitors and nursing home staff alike with ice cream (strawberry her favorite), pies (always pecan) and cakes (three layers preferred) that were purchased by nursing home staff at the local Walmart and stashed in her full-sized refrigerator. All that, in addition to whatever dishes were lovingly made by friends.
The funeral traditions of the South, especially in the small communities of north Louisiana, placed a high emphasis on food. My earliest funeral memories are not of the services themselves, but of home visits to the bereaved. In this casual setting, the family received guests. Sometimes the deceased was laid out in an adjacent room, at other times was at the funeral home.
You were expected to eat a bite. There always would be a table laden with dishes savory and sweet. When someone died, the ladies in my community went to cooking. Mother’s signature dish was chicken and rice, reminiscent of jambalaya without tomatoes and with very deeply browned rice. I have yet to perfect her technique, though I keep trying.
Leading up to the funeral, I distracted myself and my siblings by baking the orange olive oil cake from a few columns back (Aug. 25, 21019). I took it to the evening visitation at the funeral home, where guests also brought an array of cakes and sandwiches.
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We buried Mother in the country graveyard where many of our people are. As I heard Proverbs 31’s virtuous woman described by the minister, I gazed up to the towering pines, oaks and hickory that are ingrained in my heritage and of everyone in this land of timber. Above the dense forest was simply the most incredible bluebird sky. A cousin said later, “November is the best time for a funeral” — mild temperatures, low humidity, no mosquitoes — and I agreed.
After the service, we entered the fellowship hall where friends and neighbors had brought a feast of the everyday food common to our neck of the woods. Piles of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, dressing, field peas, English peas, cornbread and numerous casseroles. There was banana pudding and lemon icebox pie. Every bite delicious.
It was one of those sad but joyous occasions to be greeted with open arms by women I hadn’t seen in decades, some of whom themselves were recently bereaved. Their smiles and hugs and “I’m sorries” said they loved my mother. Their love said, “Your momma couldn’t be here, but we are, and we knew you’d be hungry.”
Chicken Stew with Rolled-Style Dumplings
Dumpling styles vary across the United States. Some are the size of biscuits while others are dropped by teaspoonfuls. The dumplings my maternal grandmother made were rolled thin, cut into squares and dropped into bubbling hot chicken broth. Two important notes: 1) A rich and flavorful broth is essential. I like to use bone-in chicken pieces cooked in chicken broth or chicken bone broth. 2) Be patient. Let the dumplings cook 30 to 40 minutes until the starchy flour taste is removed.
For the rich chicken broth:
2-3 pounds chicken leg quarters, thighs or drumsticks
2-3 quarts chicken broth, chicken bone broth or water
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
2 carrots, roughly chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon salt
Place chicken, vegetables and salt in a large heavy-bottomed pot and cover with broth or water, adding more liquid if needed. Bring to a boil then lower heat to maintain a moderate simmer. Cook for 90 minutes. Remove from heat. Remove chicken to a separate dish. When cool enough to handle, remove skin and bones, then cut chicken into bite-sized pieces.
Strain the chicken broth, discarding the vegetables. Return broth to the large pot. Salt and pepper to taste. Add the chicken pieces.
When broth is bubbling hot, drop the dumplings in a few at a time, gently pushing them into the broth with a wooden spoon. Do not stir. When all dumplings have been added, cover the pot and reduce heat to medium-low so as to maintain a very gentle simmer. Cook for 30-40 minutes. Remove from heat and serve.
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon shortening
1/3 cup milk, more or less (water may be used, but will be less rich tasting)
Place flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and combine well. Cut in the shortening until it is well distributed. Add the beaten egg and begin forming a dough. Add milk by tablespoons until the flour is incorporated and the dough is slightly sticky. Turn out onto a surface that has been generously dusted with flour. Add more flour until you can roll the dough without it sticking to the rolling pin. Roll dough very thinly, like a piecrust. Slice into 1-inch by 1-inch squares. Drop into boiling hot chicken broth.
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Why use a boxed mix when a warm bowl of creamy vanilla pudding is only a few minutes away? A little light brown sugar heightens the vanilla flavor while a touch of butter adds richness. If you’re worried about scorching the pudding, use a double boiler. If you can’t find your double boiler or like to walk on the wild side as I do, just use a good heavy-bottomed saucepan and keep the heat on medium-low while stirring constantly. Just don’t walk away.
3/4 cup sugar, half white sugar and half light brown
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
3 egg yolks, beaten in a small bowl
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons butter
3 bananas, sliced
Vanilla wafers (Note: My family loves Jack’s vanilla wafers, a humble brand sold in a plastic bag that’s hard to come by outside Louisiana. Use your favorite vanilla wafers or even graham crackers.)
Put sugars, cornstarch and salt in a saucepan and mix well. Slowly stir in milk and bring the heat to medium-low. When the custard mixture is hot, remove about 1/4 cup and stir into the beaten eggs. Repeat with another 1/4 cup. Add the tempered eggs to the custard and continue cooking until the mixture thickens. Remove from heat. Add vanilla and butter and stir until completely incorporated. Let cool.
To make banana pudding, line the bottom and sides of a glass bowl with vanilla wafers. Add a layer of pudding, then a layer of sliced bananas. Repeat layers ending with pudding on top.