My father was raised in a family of seven children, so my three siblings and I have a lot of aunts, uncles and cousins. The other night, a number of them were leaving my house after dinner and a few multi-generational games of pool.
"Do people always bring all this food?," Kim, my cousin from California asked, somewhat incredulously. Well, yes, when we need it. We asked her what people ate in California when they weren't up to cooking for themselves. She laughed. But, really. What do you eat? The last couple of weeks have been incredibly difficult for my family, and I'm glad for friends who show love through food.
Two weeks ago, my father died. Since then, my home has been filled with friends and family, from near and far. Three years ago, when my mother died in the early hours of the morning, I woke up a few hours later to clean out my refrigerator, because I knew food would be arriving soon. That food would give us the freedom to enjoy each other, rather than spending time cooking. (Or cleaning. I also have friends who will sneak into the kitchen and get it all done, while I sip a glass of wine in the porch swing. Bless them.)
This is what people do in the South when times are tough, and it helps. You may be imagining stacks of casseroles, but the dishes are far more varied than that. Everything my family has been given over the last couple of weeks has come from the heart, and we've felt all of the love that came with it. Now that I've been the recipient, I have some great ideas about what to bring when I want to care for a friend in need.
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Of course there were casseroles, plenty of wonderfully comforting, delicious casseroles. They're great, because they can be frozen for later, when the quiet sets in and you still aren't ready to cook. But there were plenty of other things I wouldn't have thought of, and they were perfect.
- Sandwich trays. Sandwiches are so easy to grab and eat. For new parents, they can be eaten with one hand while soothing a newborn with the other. They are also perfect for feeding hungry children during a time when the adults who usually feed them are too tired or busy to do it.
- Salads. A salad is a great accompaniment to traditional comfort foods.
- Chicken. It's all good: baked in a casserole, fried in pieces, roasted whole, sliced, chopped, or pulled. Chicken is comfort food, and what we can't eat now, we can pull apart and freeze to use in chicken soup or casserole later. It can be eaten hot or cold, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
- Fresh fruit. A full fruit bowl makes it easy to reach for something healthy when you need strength the most.
- Cake, and it doesn't even have to be homemade. It really is the thought that counts. Sweets can be very comforting. Let me wallow a little.
- Full meals. Several people brought full meals, both traditional, like rich meatloaf, green beans and mashed potatoes, and less traditional, like all the fixings for shrimp tacos. It doesn't get any easier than that, and this family of five really appreciated the thought. It helped us keep things a little bit normal.
- Snacks. A cheese tray is a beautiful thing, so are crackers, chips, hummus, and pimiento cheese.
- Beverages (alcoholic and non), coolers, and ice. So many people stopped in to visit, and I loved being able to offer them something cold to drink. Want to be a hero? Offer to stop by once a day and refill the outside coolers with ice.
- Paper products. This isn't technically a food, and I would never have thought to bring it, because I like to conserve whenever possible. But when you are grieving, nursing a newborn, or trying to unpack a whole house, paper products can make all the difference. Some people even brought us toilet paper and paper towels, because this would have been a terrible time to run out.
Whatever people brought, we loved it, and felt loved. I'm the sort of person who likes to have people around when something goes wrong. I also love feeding my guests. All the dishes people brought, along with a healthy stock of paper plates and napkins, and flowers to brighten my home, let me host my friends and family, enjoy their company, and still fall into bed earlier than usual.
As the quiet sets in, but the sadness remains, I think of my full freezer with a warm heart, and feel lucky to know the people I do, who know exactly what I need.
What are your local traditions? How do people show love when you need it the most?