“Pass the chicken, pass the pie. We sure eat good when someone dies. Funeral food, it’s so good for the soul. Funeral food, fills you up down to your toes.” —Kate Campbell
Funeral food was much on my mind last week as I returned to Texas to attend my grandma Ashner’s funeral.
She had been riddled with pancreatic cancer and when she was diagnosed last fall she was given five months to live. That she made it through 11 months was a gift and while I miss her, I know that she’s no longer feeling any pain.
Grandma Ashner, aka Grandma Fain or Grandma Texas, was my dad’s mother. She was a traditional Southern woman that despite her gentle, belle-like nature also had the strength to raise six children pretty much by herself in not the best of circumstances, with little complaint and much love. She was a passionate Aggie in a family of Longhorns and a staunch Democrat in a family where Republicans are the majority. She also had good Texan taste—adoring both the Dallas Cowboys and George Strait. And she made exceptional giblet gravy, which makes any other holiday condiment taste tepid and weak and wonderful chicken-fried steak, which of course makes all Texans smile.
I like to say I get my sweet nature from my mother’s side of the family—where pies are a specialty—and my savory nature from my dad’s side of the family—where chili and Tex-Mex are more on offer. But this is an oversimplification as Grandma Ashner was as sweet as they come. She always had a smile on her face and called everyone either darlin’, sweetheart or precious. And when it was time to bid farewell, you couldn’t leave without her saying, “Sweetheart, give me some sugar!”
My dad’s side of the family is large. He and his five siblings have produced 17 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchilden. I hadn’t seen many of my relatives in far too long, my being all the way up here in New York City and all. And while I wasn’t happy that I was seeing them again under such sad circumstances, it was indeed wonderful to be reunited with such a loving and cool bunch of people.
After the funeral, we went over to my cousin’s house where there was a full spread of casseroles, cold cuts, dips, salads, cookies and cakes provided by friends of the family. We were starving and this was just what we needed—funeral food, easy and comforting.
As we stood talking in the kitchen about how we’re going to put together a family cookbook to honor both Grandma and our family’s love of cooking and good food, we nibbled on a potato casserole that none of us could stop eating. It was rich, thick and creamy, and while you were stuffed after one bite you couldn’t put down your fork. Heck, many of us even went back for seconds and even thirds. There were no complaints, however, as this is what we needed that day—simple food that didn’t require much thought, just pure, fulfilling pleasure.
I have a recipe for potato casserole that may not be exactly what we ate, but it’s very similar. It’s not everyday fare as it’s heavy and not all that healthy. But that’s exactly what makes it perfect funeral food—for those times when you need something easy that can help fill the void caused by a loved one’s passing. And while it will be impossible to fill the void left by Grandma Ashner, for a moment at least, funeral food such as this potato casserole rose to the occasion and did its part.
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 Hatch or Anaheim chiles, diced
4 tablespoons of butter
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
2 pounds of Russet potatoes, peeled and cut into small dice
1 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a large cast-iron skillet set on medium-low heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and then cook the onion and the chiles until the onions start to brown a bit, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat.
Mix together the garlic, cumin, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper.
Add the diced potatoes to the skillet and mix with the onions and peppers. Stir in the garlic and spice mixture.
Pour the cream over the potatoes and cover the skillet with foil. Bake for 1 hour.
After an hour, remove the potatoes from the oven, and turn on the broiler. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into small pieces, and dot on top of the cooked potatoes. Place the skillet under the broiler for 2 minutes or until the butter has melted and potatoes are starting to brown on top.
Let the casserole cool for 10 minutes, then serve.
6 to 8 servings