A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Cook

After the death of a loved one, a Southerner seeks comfort in her kitchen—and finds it in gifts of food



To try a recipe for spicy cheese and tomato dip, in which the author sought comfort after her mother passed away, click here.

I have had one of the saddest weeks of my life: my mother, Frances Trosclair, lost her battle with bone cancer. As I have mentioned many times in my articles, she was an amazing person, a true Southern lady, a great citizen, and a wonderful mother. Of the hundreds of cards and well wishes we have received almost everyone touched on a "life well lived." She was so present in my life that I know I will not be able to fill the void for a very long time, if ever.

My mother was way too joyful for me to dwell on the sadness, so I will share the lighter side of the past few days and some of the tender moments and thoughts on comfort food. Knowing there is not anyone reading this article that has not experienced a broken heart, I ask you what is the food that gives comfort and relief?

Natchez, Mississippi, my second love after my family, is such a caring, generous community. This town has funeral food down to a science. There have been Southern cookbooks written about funeral food and now I am beginning to understand the need for it. Most people do not have to worry about a meal for at least a week after the time they lose a loved one. The casseroles and cakes begin to arrive within hours. There is also the Carriage House restaurant—I call it "funeral food central"—for those who do not stock casseroles in their freezers or who aren't adept at whipping up buttermilk pound cake. It just takes a phone call (and credit card) to send your love and affection, starting with the best fried chicken in the South and trays of their pimento cheese and chicken salad tea sandwiches, which are always welcome and most definitely qualify as comfort food. Even on the first day there was so much food arriving. I felt overwhelmed, and I said to my brother-in-law, What are we going to do with eight pound cakes? He said to just be a gracious recipient.

The food is a nice way of saying "I care" without many words, and it is a lovely gesture that I now have a greater appreciation for. Although amazing quantities of food arrived and I knew it was going to continue to arrive, I knew I was going to have to prepare some dishes to add to all the gifts we received. Knowing I typically have 130 family members for Thanksgiving, I knew there would be close to 400 or more coming to Twin Oaks after the funeral. We did invite everyone in the obituary. No matter how much I was grieving, the hostess gene I inherited from my mom kicked in.

I provided my peppered brisket, pork grillades, shrimp and Andouille creole, and savory grits. I also ordered 15 dozen butter and egg rolls from Natchez Market (I knew I needed filler for about 200). It worked well in between the fried catfish from Cock of the Walk, the Carriage House chicken, the church ladies' green bean casseroles and lasagnas, Monmouth Plantation's trays of prime rib, Caesar salad, ratatouille, and basil mashed potatoes. South Louisiana cousins provided Cajun jalapeño bread and boudin, and Dunleith Plantation sent over beautiful sautéed vegetables. There were dips and chips and cheese trays; someone even left Velveeta cheese and a can of Rotel tomatoes (I was amused). I could go on and on, as the food filled not only my 14-foot dining room table but also extra tables that had to be set up to house the dozens of cakes and pies. I guessed correctly that there was nothing left over and no one left hungry. I was not hungry and was running on adrenaline, a call of duty, and grief.

The next day I had a group of very lovely ladies from Dallas that had planned a cooking class weekend with me here at Twin Oaks. They had planned it nearly eight months ago and I did not have the heart to cancel. It was probably a good thing, as I took a break from grieving. As we went through the motions of a menu of Creole corn and crab bisque, butter biscuits, quail in a pepper crust, corn pudding stuffed with mustard greens, and chocolate-orange bread pudding with caramelized sugar sauce, I was never hungry. I just had that feeling of not knowing what I wanted. Nothing that night fit into a category of comfort food, for me. I could not be comforted.

Sunday arrived and I finally could just be. I went from not wanting food at all to having this empty feeling that was begging to be filled. I was content to have a day with down time. We went out for lunch and I ordered pasta thinking that would be what I needed. No. Later in the afternoon I ate an ice cream cone. No. An hour later a glass of red wine. No. When the sun began to set and I was feeling very tired and completely unsatisfied, I said to my husband, "I want Rotel dip and Fritos."

I made it. Who would have thought that I was craving fake cheese, spicy tomatoes, and salty corn chips? Yes, I felt better for a moment, but no it did not fill the void long enough. Let me say that this is not a typical pattern for me. I am not a snacker, I rarely have ice cream, and I do not know if I ever made Rotel dip before yesterday. When I have a broken heart I just have this void, and keep trying to fill it. Oddly, as I am writing this, I am still craving Rotel dip. I have some left over, but I will be strong. It was a bit of a chore—I tried to make it in the microwave and Velveeta does not melt easily or quickly. I am not well versed in Velveeta; I did not read the directions, which would have helped. When I first spotted the Velveeta and Rotel tomatoes, I was amused; then when I had it I was a gracious recipient. As the person who is always giving the gift of food, I have not often been the recipient. The one lesson I have learned through this time in my life is to always be gracious and grateful. There is comfort in that.

Recipe: Rotel Dip