Earlier in the week I found myself putting together dinner for the family of an under-the-weather friend. (A long overdue dinner, I should say. I am behind on bringing meals to several folks similarly situated - you know who you are - but I am SLOWLY getting caught up.) At some point in the process, I realized that I was, basically, operating on autopilot. And this made me happy, because it reminded me that (1) I am Southern, (2) I am a girl and (3) I am the type of Southern girl who assembles delivery dinners for sick friends and new mommies on autopilot. I consider distinction #3 to be a badge of honor (although I'm generally pretty proud of #1 and #2, too). Pondering distinction #3 got my mind going, re: all of the other badges of honor that Southern girls of a certain type tend to display.
I decided that the quirks of being a Southern girl of a certain type merited their own blog series. Sunday seemed like a good day, because it was open, and because it was Sunday - a day of the week on which many Southern quirks tend to manifest themselves.
Starting off the series . . . a primer on delivery dinners:
1) Scheduling. Beginners should - um - begin, I guess, by contacting the deliveree (if that isn't a word, well, darn it, it ought to be) and making arrangements to deliver food on a certain day, within a certain time window. It's also important to determine how many people you will be feeding and whether anyone has any dietary restrictions. Advanced course: If you travel in certain circles (Sunday school classes, women's groups), you will not need to have this conversation with the deliveree, because a friend of the deliveree will have set up a page for the deliveree on a Web site like Meal Train or Lotsa Helping Hands. On this page will be a calendar, showing dates on which meals are desired. You click on a date to reserve it, insert your name and what you are bringing (important so that people on either side of your date know what not to bring, lest the deliveree find herself floating in chicken soup or buried under mountains of spaghetti) - boom, done. The deliveree's page will also tell you when to make your delivery, whether to call first, and whether anyone is allergic to peanuts, or wheat, or dairy, or shellfish, or strawberries, or avocados. (Until recently, I was unaware that you could be allergic to avocados. But, in fact, a new mommy friend is allergic to avocados. How did I learn this? From her meal delivery page, silly! Aren't you paying attention?)
2) Meal Selection. It is customary to provide an entree, possibly a side dish, a salad, and bread and/or dessert. The exact configuration of the meal really depends on the entree. Italian food, for example, lends itself to salad and bread. A meat-only dish (grilled chicken, barbecue brisket) calls for a side of vegetables. I am Methodist. This means that I tend to make casseroles, which means that my veggies tend to be inextricably intertwined with my meat as part of the entree (bound together, usually, by some creamed soup product). This week, I made West of the Pecos, a beef, vegetable and noodle dish that is Mexican-ish (but mild enough for nursing mothers; see advanced course, below). It was one of my favorites after Connor was born, and I have been making it for others since then. It is unique among my go-to casserole recipes in that it doesn't feature any part of the creamed soup trinity (chicken, mushroom and celery). It does feature canned soup (tomato) and something creamed (corn), but the soup and the creamed stuff are separate.
For a Methodist, this constitutes thinking outside of the box.
Along with the casserole, I provided a salad with Ranch dressing (I was cooking for a family with multiple boys, and Ranch and boys just go together) and dessert. Advanced course: If you are cooking for a nursing mother, you should give thought to what you are putting in Momma that Momma will be putting into Baby. Translation: cut down on the chili powder, or cut it out entirely. Consider omitting onions and garlic. Since I wasn't cooking for a new mom, I had a little more leeway. I also had a little fun with dessert, making cutout sugar cookies with silly messages on them (using my Williams-Sonoma "Message in a Cookie" cutters) out of pink-tinted dough. I also threw in breakfast for the next day - sweet rolls with a brown sugar, cinnamon and marmalade glaze. I topped these with pecans. OF COURSE I topped these with pecans. Remember, I AM A SOUTHERN GIRL. But I chopped the pecans fairly coarsely, and I only added them to the top, so picky kids could - well, pick them off.
3) Packaging. Think disposable - foil pans for a casserole, those little "take-n-go" plastic containers that they sell next to the zip-top bags for salad dressing, and so on. The idea is to make things easy for the deliveree. Washing and returning baking pans does not constitute "easy." Be sure to include reheating instructions. Advanced course: Providing recipes is a nice touch. I like to throw in paper products, if I have them on hand or remember to buy them when I am buying my ingredients. This week's deliveree got a little handled gift bag containing styrofoam cups (decorated with a Groucho Marx mustache design and the phrase, "Be yourself - everyone else is taken"), paper napkins and the sugar cookies tied in individual cellophane bags. To the front of the bag I attached a card with the food prep instructions. The card had our address stamp on the top. This was not a fishing expedition for a thank-you note - the card happened to have the stamp on it already - but providing at least your name on the package is a good idea, given that your recipient may also be a Southern girl, and therefore may have thank-you notes on her mind (and will write you one, even if you insist that a note isn't necessary).
What the address stamp does demonstrate: my affinity for personalized address labels, and my affinity for monograms (specifically, my spouse's and my blended monogram). Both of these, I think, are terribly Southern. And, therefore, will be highlighted in future posts.
4) Extras. If the deliveree is a new mommy, and Baby is not her first child, a lot of Southern girls will include a small gift for Big Brother or Big Sister (doesn't have to be elaborate - a coloring book and some crayons or some bath toys). Advanced course: When Parker was born, one of my best college friends delivered (a) a meal, (b) a present for the baby, (c) a present for the big brother and (d) flannel pajamas for Momma. Not just any flannel pajamas, but a three-piece set with drawstring-waisted pants (very forgiving), a matching (roomy) button-down top and a color-coordinated, more fitted knit camisole. Her explanation: she wanted me to have something to wear while my stomach was "going down," and also something to wear after. Brilliant. No, it was not her first rodeo - she'd just had her second child not long before.
5) Delivery. Let's skip right to the advanced course: If you are REALLY ADEPT at being a Southern girl of a certain type, you will have married a Southern boy of a certain type, who grew up watching his mom cook for funerals and bake pies for newcomers, and the boy that you married will understand why you are doing all of this work for someone else. He will appreciate the "pay it forward" aspect of your efforts, recollecting how nice people were to you (and to him) after your children were born. HE MAY EVEN OFFER TO DELIVER THE FOOD FOR YOU. As my Southern boy has done on numerous occasions - including this last week.
He is what we Southern girls refer to as "a keeper."