I flew to North Carolina last week for my grandmother’s funeral. She was 87 and she couldn’t do anything for herself by the time she died. A woman named Tonya would come by the house every day, and later the nursing home, and feed her and bathe her and turn on Andy Griffith for her to watch. Tonya was with her when she died, and the day before that when my grandmother had said, “Hold me,” it was Tonya who pulled down the bed rails and put her solid bronze arms around my grandmother’s soft, fleshy ones.
When I stepped off the plane in Raleigh, the air was hot and thick and I wished I’d changed out of my jeans before I left the airport. My brother picked me up, along with my mother and my sister, and when I got into his truck they started telling me about all the food people had brought over.
“You would not believe how much food we have back at the house,” my mom began, shaking her head so that her graying hair bounced against her forehead. “Fried chicken, pecan pie,” — she pronouces it PEE-can — “chess pie, potato salad, cole slaw. We have enough to feed an army.”
My sister took up the litany, counting the dishes off on her fingers. “Barbecued chicken. Deviled eggs. Chocolate cake.” Even in the darkened car, I could see her eyes sparkle, but not with tears. Eating feels good, even when everything else feels bad.
We spent much of the ride home talking about what they’d eaten the night before, and which neighbor or church friend or circle member had brought what dish. When we got home, everyone peeled off to bed but me and mom. We cut into a chocolate sheet cake made from Duncan Hines mix and store bought frosting. I ate a square of it standing up in my grandparents’ red kitchen, and then cut off another small sliver just to even things out. It was fluffy and fresh and delicious. It reminded me of birthday party cake from when I was a kid.
I read over a piece of paper on the kitchen table that listed all the food that had been dropped off and by whom. The funeral house prints these forms up and brings them to the deceased’s house, along with a podium with a light attached to it and a book that sits on top of it for visitors to sign.
The next morning, I woke up and took a shower. I put on a dress I’d bought with money my grandmother sent me for my birthday, and shoes I’d bought the previous summer for my grandfather’s funeral. We drove to the cemetary and sat down on chairs covered in scratchy crushed blue velvet. My grandparents’ ashes had been comingled — that is the official term for mixing them together — and they were held in a wooden box engraved with intertwining hearts and the words “Together Forever.” They were both blessed and later buried in that hot, muggy air, and even as I cried, I couldn’t help but notice that the preacher used a word I’d never heard before — undergird. In the car on the way home I asked my brother and sister if anyone had ever heard it before. No one had.
Back home, my cousins immediately set about heating up the food. Most of us crowded into the kitchen; some of us were hungry, some tried to help, but I think most of us just didn’t know what else to do. My cousin Sheila hadn’t been able to sleep the night after my grandmother died, so she got up at 4:30 in the morning and baked a pound cake.
When we finally sat down to eat, we had three kinds of chicken (roasted, barbecued, and fried), deviled eggs, sandwiches, baked ham, yeast rolls, ham rolls, three kinds of potato salad, cole slaw, corn pudding, rice pilaf, broccoli casserole, asparagus casserole topped with Pringles (I kid you not), lasagna, baked beans, bread-and-butter pickles, and chicken salad. We all sat around in the living room with plates on our knees, sipping sweet tea, catching up with people we hadn’t talked to in a year, complaining about the heat and humidity.
There were just as many desserts as anything else. Lemon chess pie, pecan pie, chocolate cake, the most marvelous chocolate fudge pie (it’s basically gooey, nearly-cooked brownie batter in a flaky pie shell), pound cake, banana pudding. What we didn’t eat, we wrapped back up and put out again for dinner that night, after the memorial service at the church, after I stood in the receiving line and met all the people who had fed us.
Grandma’s Fried Chicken
1 whole chicken, cut into legs, thighs, breasts, and wings
salt and pepper to taste
In my grandmother’s words: “I’m not the fryer in the family,” she started out by saying. “That’s Margaret [her sister]. But I’ve fried a lot of chicken. What you want to do is salt and pepper and flour the chicken. Teri [her cousin] says you should soak it in milk before you flour it. He brought us some fried chicken one time and it was mighty good, but I don’t know. Then you want to cook it in hot grease. You can use Crisco or you can use the liquid, it doesn’t matter. We always used Crisco. But anyway, you want to cook it in enough hot grease to cover the chicken.
“Daddy called himself the Master Fryer, and Mother always said, ‘I guess you are. All you do is stand there and fry it and I have to do all the rest of it and all the cleaning up.’ We had fried chicken every Sunday morning for breakfast with biscuits.
“But anyway. The smaller the chicken the better. It’s done when you can stick a fork in easily and no blood appears. Maybe 20 minutes, but watch it. Then just put it on a paper towel to drain.”
All measurements are approximate because you really only need enough to suit you. Cover the chicken in buttermilk for a few hours, up to overnight. Pat it good and dry, then salt and pepper it to taste and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess. Or, you can toss the flour in a paper bag, season it to your liking (cayenne adds a nice touch) and then toss the chicken parts in one by one.
Heat the Crisco about halfway up a cast iron skillet until it’s melted and a small piece of bread bubbles and fries on contact. Then add the pieces, one or two at a time to prevent the oil from cooling down. Turn them after about 5-8 minutes, depending on size and type of meat; keep in mind dark meat needs longer to cook than white meat. Drain on a plate covered with paper towels and serve hot. Also good cold the next day.