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Say It with Casseroles
August 1st, 2011

Here in the blogging world we like to comfort each other with our words.  We try hard to turn phrases that convey the precise sentiment we’re feeling.  We try to evoke moods and meaning.  Most of the time we at least get close.  But I’m here to say that, as far as I’m concerned, when the going really gets tough nothing expresses care and concern like food.

I’m an old fashioned girl in many respects.  I insist on carrying cotton handkerchiefs, writing on monogrammed stationery, and sending thank you notes any time I’ve been an overnight guest in someone’s house.  GAP indulges and respects my traditional ways, but doesn’t typically share them.  So I tend to go it alone in this regard.  The one exception to this rule is taking food to people in times of need.

Last week the father of a casual friend of ours passed away unexpectedly.  As I read the brief update on Facebook I tried to think of what she must have been feeling; tried to put myself in her shoes; tried to come up with exactly the right words to send her way, offering peace and comfort.  I drew a blank.

Instead I sent her this note:

I wanted to touch base with you and see what your weekend looks like.  I’d like to drop off some food for you and J, but I don’t know when your dad’s funeral is scheduled or what other family plans you might have.  Can you let me know if there’s a time this weekend, or one evening next week when it would be convenient for me to stop by?

From there I went on to express my condolences, although briefly, because I knew that nothing I could say in an e-mail would matter as much as a meal on her doorstep.  Food says all the things that words can’t.  Food takes time.  Delivering it takes time.  Being willing to stay for a visit, or merely drop off the food and leave – depending on the emotional needs of the grieving person – takes nuance and consideration.  All these things combined offer, I believe, a much more compelling expression of sympathy and affection than nearly any string of words.

This whole situation reminded me of a scene in Eat, Pray, Love when Liz Gilbert discusses the differences between her approach to the world and that of her older sister.

“A family in my sister’s neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, “Dear God, that family needs grace.” She replied firmly, “That family needs casseroles,” and then proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this is grace.”

Of course my one meal delivered yesterday afternoon falls far short of a year’s worth of coordinated deliveries, but I suppose the sentiment is the same.

I haven’t written this post to say that I get it right every time.  This approach has its drawbacks too.  I have a cousin out of state whose family is currently fighting one of the most hideous cancer battles I’ve ever seen, and short of one batch of macaroons, I haven’t been able to offer much.  So I certainly fall short more than I’d like.  But nine times out of ten I’ve found that I can be much more helpful with the gift of a meal than anything else I might have to offer.

Thus ends my little PSA.  The next time someone you know is in pain, I hope you’ll write them a little note (ideally on monogrammed stationery).  But what I really hope is that you’ll tape it to the top of a casserole dish, along with baking instructions, because your love and affection could hardly be better expressed.

11 Responses to “Say It with Casseroles”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    Oh! That is one of my very favorite parts of EPL and I’ve written a whole essay about it with regard to my mother! I love, love, love this … great reminder that often actions, not just words, are required to really make our point. xoxo

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Thank God for casseroles, and the beautiful creatures who bring them. Your friend is in my thoughts.

  3. Gale Says:

    Kitch – You and your mom also were on my mind as I wrote this post. Would that I could show up on Mama’s doorstep with enough lasagna to feed an army!

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Yes to hand-written notes. Yes to comfort food. And yes, most of all, to letting someone know you are there for them in any way you can be.

    Sometimes a small gesture goes a long way.

  5. anne Says:

    When I can’t think of words, I cook. For friends who have gone through divorce, had babies, lost a loved one. I’m a big believer in speaking through food. Good reminder:)

  6. Cathy Says:

    All three schools (elementary, middle and high) in my town have a Helping Hands committee. The leaders of the committee hear about members of the community who have had issues – disease, illness, new babies and death. They organize with the family in need – a schedule, food allergies, delivery instructions, etc… Every year, even if it’s the only thing I have time for, I volunteer. I remember one fellow mother stricken with breast cancer who we were providing meals for – and she came to the door and thanked every single person. I will never forget how genuinely thankful she was and the feeling it left me.

  7. Laura H. Says:

    Once again, a great post Gale. This year I have been the maker of casseroles for a neighbor whose husband lost a well-fought battle with lymphoma, and during the 5 weeks while my husband was recovering from 2 major back surgeries I was the receiver of casseroles.
    As the giver, while handing over the lasgna/chicken and rice/etc. I always feel like saying “I WISH THERE WAS MORE I COULD DO!” But after taking a turn as the receiver, I realized that there really is nothing more wonderful than receiving something that feeds your body, feeds your children’s bodies, and allows you some time to yourself at the end of the day. My life was so busy during my husband’s hospitalizations that it was only the nights when someone brought me dinner that I actually found time to put my feet up and just feel all the emotions I had pushed down all day long because I had to get kids to and from school, visit the hospital, attempt to work a full work day, get a load of laundry in so everyone would have underwear the next day, etc.
    I also learned that in the future when I’m the giver, I won’t ask if I can help. Those in need sometimes have a hard time accepting it. I would never have accepted an offer to make us something from our next door neighbor who we rarely see, but when she showed up with gooey butter cake, I happily accepted. Instead of asking, “Can I do anything? Make you a casserole?”, I will ask “When is a good time to come by to drop off the dinner I’ve MADE for you?” Much easier to accept the food that’s already prepared. I also learned from a good friend in New York City and another in Dallas that being out of town shouldn’t hinder my food giving! We received an Omaha steaks delivery and a Schwann’s delivery from these friends! Genius! And much appreciated!

  8. Gale Says:

    Laura H – You are absolutely right. We also took a short turn on the receiving end of food deliveries after IEP was born and was still in the NICU. It may feel like a small gesture to the giver, but it’s a lifeline to the recipient. Also, thanks for the tip on the Schwan’s delivery. I will certainly be checking out delivery options in my cousin’s town.

  9. Shelby Says:

    Hi Gale — I love this post and the sentiment of the casserole. In my small town, it was so commonplace to give a food during times of need, and it’s something I’ve neglected to do (for you and for many, many others). One of my hesitations is not knowing what to make (the result obviously of not knowing my friends’ and colleagues’ tastes well enough). Do you have certain casseroles or other dishes that you go back to time and again when you’re wanting to provide support?

  10. Gale Says:

    Shelby – You’re so kind. You know, I’ve found that when someone is bringing me food I really don’t care what it is. The fact that the other person has gone to the effort on my behalf (and that I, in turn, don’t have to go to any effort at all) is really what matters most. When I’m taking food to someone in need – be it due to good times or bad – I try to choose something that will be comforting, but still slightly healthy. Chicken and broccoli casserole, Martha’s white cheddar mac and cheese with a salad, or Giada’s spinach and prosciutto lasagna rolls. I always try to take something that will be an actual meal, rather than snacking/grazing food, because in times of stress we are so inclined to fill up on Chex mix rather than fuel our bodies properly. But what it really boils down to is the thought. My mother always said that no food tastes better than food made by someone else, and I think she’s right!

  11. Rebecca Says:

    I wholeheartedly believe in saving it with casseroles! I have only once been on the receiving end and that was when my daughter was born – a happy occasion. But I imagine, when the occasion isn’t so happy, people just want to do/think as little as necessary and certainly not be distracted by ‘what’s for dinner.’ Moreover, my ideal is just to write a quick note, bring the casserole over, ring the doorbell and run away. Sometimes, in these situations, its even burdensome to be gracious and appreciative and polite. Its ok for the appreciation and thanks to come later.