Monday, September 10, 2012

The Casserole Network

Ask anyone who has an affiliation with a religious organization, no matter the flavor, and they will tell you that when a baby is born, someone has surgery, or someone dies, the women in their community come together and cook meals to take to the families in need. Even for the non-religious, when someone is in need, women cook and deliver food. It’s just what you do.

Heat it and enjoy!
My mother and my grandmothers on both sides were Methodist women, so as far as I knew, life’s big dramatic events meant something fully unrecognizable and ridiculously delicious would arrive at your home. And almost every time, it would come in a Pyrex dish covered with aluminum foil. In Texas, this means that your pantry must always include a back-up supply of Cream of Mushroom Soup, and you can never have enough aluminum foil. I’m not sure if the Cream of Mushroom craze is universal. In remote Alaska, their version of The Casserole Network might have something to do with smoked salmon or elk’s feet. Either way, you get my drift.

This network is magic to me. I’m sure you can trace the origins to before telephones were invented, when carrier pigeons shared the news of an illness or death, and from there, women made large vats of soup to help their friends in need. Today, with iPhones and texting, the process is much easier. And the most efficient way to handle it is the brilliant, an online meal delivery planning service, introduced to me by friend Amy.

Amy is in a league of her own when it comes to meal delivery. She’s a pro, sending emails or texts and getting the job done while the rest of us are contemplating gift cards (another thing that offers as an option). Amy can plan a baby shower in less than 15 minutes, down to beautiful personalized napkins. She’s also the friend who announced boldly before having children that she would never serve frozen lasagna to dinner guests in her home. We gave her endless crap about this, but two children later, I think she’s actually sticking to her word. Meanwhile, if Queen Elizabeth came to visit unannounced, I’d probably whip out a frozen lasagna and call it a day, but that’s just me.

Fancy new meal delivery technology aside, I have always believed that The Casserole Network is more like the scene in Snow White where Snow White bakes a pie with the assistance of animated birds with culinary experience. I like to fancy that when someone gets sick, a vast network of animated church ladies simultaneously begin whipping up casseroles while animated birds pull processed cheese out of the fridge. There’s some whistling. It’s wholesome and pure. And nobody cusses like a truck driver like I did when I burned my arm making pasticcio for Geography Day when my stepdaughter was in elementary school.

Last Friday my mother had foot surgery, and the network kicked in right away. But first, a little background: my parents live in a wonderful little house in the Azalea district in my hometown of Tyler, Texas. The house has some definite quirks. For one, it was designed by a creative architect who may have had a little drug problem, or had some hatred for the elderly or temporarily disabled. Each room in the home is on a different level, so in order to get from one room to the next, you confront one or more stairs. The rooms are small, and the floor plan winds itself up from the ground floor, up seven levels to a balcony outside of the top bedroom. It’s basically an indoor Swiss Family Treehouse, except my parents don’t sleep in hammocks, and they don’t pass down dirty dishes on dumbwaiters made out of rope and sticks. But otherwise, the climbing is about the same.

When my mother, a very strong-willed and independent 65-year-old, called to tell me she was having foot surgery, I wasn’t surprised when she said she wouldn’t need my help. But I got to thinking about the quirky house with the stairs, and started imagining my mother toppling down the stairs in her black Velcro boot while my stepfather the artist was drawing in his studio several rooms below, completely unaware. I decided I needed to be there to help out, and that was that.

I arrived at the Swiss Family Treehouse the evening before the surgery to determine my duties and rest up for my mother’s surgery day. While catching up, my mother told me that several weeks ago, one of her dearest friends had a neck injury that required surgery. Because she’s a prominent member of the Casserole Network, my mother and other Sunday school friends arranged a dinner delivery, each taking on a portion of the meal. The woman who volunteered for dessert is a woman of my own heart. She started with grand illusions of making a homemade dessert, but life got in the way, and her back-up plan was to buy ice cream. I love that! My mother offered to handle the delivery, and, because of logistics, planned to meet the dessert volunteer at a local convenience store parking lot.

So far I’ve been pretty sexist here, failing to mention how men fit into this delicate picture. But let’s call a spade a spade, because we all know that most men don’t go whipping up chicken taco casseroles when their friends get sick. I’ve heard of exceptions, but for today’s story let’s consider that women are running this business. The men get to carry the hot plates.

On this particular afternoon, my mother and stepfather are in a convenience store parking lot, waiting on the dessert volunteer. It’s about 127 degrees, a typical late Texas summer afternoon. My mother does most of the driving, so my stepfather is in the passenger seat with a piping hot Pyrex dish of chicken spaghetti casserole on his lap. He’s loving life, I’m sure. He’s a skinny man in his ‘80s who has taken to wearing baseball caps with messages on them. If you had told me 30 years ago that he would be wearing baseball caps, I would fall on the floor laughing. Yet somehow these hats suit him now. The hat he’s wearing lately reads the famous Davy Crockett quote, “You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.” In other words, he may be 81, but cross this man in a convenience store parking lot, and he might just toss a hot casserole at you. 

The scene is looking pretty shady as my parents wait on the dessert volunteer. My mother also does most of the talking, so she turns to my stepfather, and says, “How are we going to know which car is hers?”

My stepfather, in his typical deadpan style, says, “She’ll be driving the car with ice cream dripping out of the car doors.”

Soon enough, the dessert volunteer arrives and she and my mother make a shady-looking exchange with a plastic bag filled with individual ice creams in a variety of excellent flavors, thankfully still frozen. The patient and her husband were delighted; The Casserole Network’s job was done.

This weekend, it was my mother’s turn to be the patient. As a bossy firstborn daughter who appears to be “in charge,” I learned  that I am not mentally prepared to be my mother’s caretaker. She’s too strong and independent. She’s really good at getting things done. At the end of the day, I’m a big spoiled baby who likes to see my mom up and at it when I’m at her house. But because my sister had fallen ill several days before and would typically be with me to help out, I ended up the person in charge. My stepfather, also not fired up at the idea of my mother being partially immobile for six weeks, graciously allowed me to enter the tree house and take over.

Given the circumstances, I cannot stress how lifesaving the Casserole Network is at times like this. Even before my mother’s surgery, the network’s machine was smoothly running in the background, waiting for go time. As my mother recovered, the home phone would ring and a friend would be on the line, offering up delivery times that worked best for our schedules. No matter how hard it is for us to accept help, there comes a time when we all need it, and there is nothing better than a Pyrex dish covered in foil, a Tupperware bowl of fresh salad, and a Ziploc bag of cookies to ease the patient and her family down the road to recovery.

1 comment:

  1. I am terribly embarrassed that it took me a week to catch up! While I have yet to serve that frozen lasagna, I constantly stack up quick meal ideas, on the off chance that I have a dinner party ever again (I did just sell the dining table!). Love the casserole network and that you were able to take care of your mom. -Amy d p.