It is 9:30 at night and Bunny, my mother-in-law who lives in Knoxville, is guiding her buggy down the aisles of the Kroger while talking to me on the phone. She is stocking up on funeral food that she will lovingly prepare as one of the ladies from Farragut Presbyterian Church after services for Ashley Roback, a wife and mother who died of breast cancer at age 30. Bunny is not thinking that her marathon trip to the grocery store is anything special.
“It doesn’t matter what religion you are,” says Bunny as she heads towards the freezer section for some Cool Whip. “It’s what you do.”
So, of course, I asked Bunny to take a picture of the food so I could check out the Presbyterian version of what we Episcopalians think we have cornered the market on – the well-prepared funeral food table. I will be getting to the broccoli rice casserole shortly.
Alrighty then. What do I see? Fruit. Episcopalians are not big on fruit unless there’s a cream cheese dip in the middle of the platter. But it’s healthy so I’ll give the Presbyterians a pass. Deviled eggs. Now you’re talking. A funeral reception is not complete without deviled eggs. Sister Schubert yeast rolls. Always well appreciated. Thousands of Southern women abruptly stopped making homemade yeast rolls as soon as Sister Schubert rolled out her frozen ones. I believe I am spying a sweet potato casserole with browned marshmallows on top. Good call. Nothing more comforting than a sweet potato casserole.
And next? Could it be? It appears to be the coveted broccoli rice casserole. If I’m wrong, don’t correct me. Broccoli rice casserole may be the single best side dish ever because – drum roll! – it’s made with an entire jar of Cheez Whiz.
Bunny started making broccoli rice casserole for her yearly Thanksgiving extravaganza. It was not uncommon for 40-50 people to show up at Bunny’s just to fight their way to the buffet table for this one dish. Every year, I would carefully monitor the broccoli rice casserole pan as guest after guest took a scoopful. When it was about three quarters gone, I would swoop in and fib that there was another one coming right out of the oven. Shameful, I know. But there was no other way to ensure that I would get the leftovers (Bunny, do not judge me). And, of course, I am lying. But I wanted to. The saddest sight in the world is the broccoli rice casserole pan empty with just a few shreds of rice clinging to the sides. Which I would eat with my fingers.
In the midst of tragedy, with a family still foggy with grief, somehow broccoli rice casserole and the other food lovingly prepared by good Christian women brings comfort. It is the familiar in a world suddenly strange and cold. I did not know Ashley, but my heart aches for her husband, children, parents and other family members. And I am fairly certain she looked down from the greatest potluck ever created and said, “Good job. But the broccoli rice casserole here is better.”
Broccoli Rice Casserole
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped broccoli, thawed
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup butter
1 1/3 cups cooked rice
1 8-ounce jar processed cheese spread, such as Cheez Whiz
1 can cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
Combine broccoli and onion. Cook according to package directions. Drain and add remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Pour into a greased 9-by-13 casserole dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.