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October 20, 2013

Last month I was involved in an automobile accident. Well, actually it was a truck accident. At the corner of Pine Street and Forest Avenue a red truck ran a red light and T-boned my blue truck. The impact was on the driver’s side door. A trip by ambulance to the emergency room and subsequent x-rays, scans, and interrogation revealed upper torso trauma focused in my separated left shoulder.

Both trucks were pronounced a total loss. Both drivers have survived to tell the story. I regret the loss of my little blue Tacoma. It had transported many of our family possessions to the beach for summer vacations. I had loaded the bed with plants of every kind for the garden and hauled multiple Frasier fir trees each Christmas. Our children had used the pickup to move – lock, stock and barrel – to cities as distant as Nashville, Tennessee, and Chicago, Illinois.  But in the end, I am grateful that my vehicle did its job. It protected me pretty well from an accident that could have been far more serious.

I am also grateful for the caring people in the church that I pastor. The congregation has responded to Clare and to me just as they do to others who are caught in difficult circumstances. According to classical Christian theology, there are seven deadly sins. Six of them will get a pastor kicked out of the ministry. One that is actually encouraged by the congregation is my personal weakness, the sin of gluttony. When church folks don’t know what else to do they pray, send cards, and bring casseroles.

I am often invited to be the guest speaker at a variety of events at churches all over the Upstate. We always have a delightful time together. I especially enjoy the delicious covered dish meals. Among the many choices of food I can always expect a wide selection of casseroles: squash, broccoli, sweet potato, and green bean.

At a recent pot luck dinner at the church I pastor, one of our elderly members commented, “I have never seen a church run out of food at a covered dish supper.”  His wife offered a ready explanation.  “There is always more than enough because people bring casseroles.  When you make a casserole, you make a little food go a long way.”

In the South, a casserole is considered comfort food.  It is the gift of choice brought to the door when a new baby is born or a family is bereaved.  One man, still grieving for his mother, told me with a smile that he and his family had enough macaroni and cheese casseroles in the freezer to last a year.

“After my mother died, our family received fourteen macaroni and cheese casseroles in two days,” he said.

When words are inadequate, this ministry of casseroles is a way of expressing love and concern. Think of a casserole as comfort in a dish.

Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio presented a piece on All Things Considered about the nationwide increase in demand for comfort food.

A comfort food looks good, smells good, tastes good, and goes down easy. More importantly, comfort food takes you back to a place where you felt cared for and nourished, a place associated from childhood with a sense of security. In the same way young children become attached to a security blanket, they often latch on to a specific food, repeatedly requesting their comfort food in high stress situations. Adults tend to do the same.

Most comfort foods rely heavily on carbohydrates. Scientists believe that such foods induce a soothing effect in the brain. According to Linda Wertheimer’s report, after 9/11 the most common comfort foods chosen in New York City restaurants were chicken potpie, macaroni and cheese, and chocolate desserts.

Jean was the mother of three energetic boys, all teenagers when I knew them.  She was a resourceful woman and an excellent cook.  On a week-long youth retreat at the beach, Jean served as our head chef for fifty-two youth and adults.  She was the queen of combining bits and pieces of leftovers into gourmet casseroles.  “Leftovers,” Jean would say, “are like money in the bank. Casseroles are the best way to take a little of this and a little of that to make a tasty meal.”

On the last morning of our retreat, we expected a breakfast of cold cereal.  Instead, we were served a delectable meal concocted entirely of fragments from the fridge. Jean called her creation Breakfast Divan. Believe me, it was comfort food.

Smart cooks know that, when preparing casseroles, extras can be stored in the freezer for those inevitable unexpected situations. When relatives drop in for the weekend or when a last-minute dish is needed, heating a frozen casserole is a quick and nutritious solution. Casseroles have been called the emergency fund you can eat

I have often referred to the church’s response to bereavement as a ministry of casseroles.  When caring people don’t know what to say, they bring food.  The more difficult the loss, the more covered dishes come through the kitchen door.  The fellow whose family received fourteen macaroni and cheese casseroles after the sudden death of his mother, had a very good suggestion.

“Those inclined toward bringing covered dishes might try a little variety.”

The ministry of casseroles recognizes that at certain times people need comfort. Casseroles provide a way to help.

A busy nurse and mother of two often served her family’s favorite chicken and broccoli casserole for dinner. Whenever she prepared the dish, she made several, putting extra casseroles in the freezer so they would be readily available in an emergency. Her nursing schedule did not always allow time to cook the evening meal from scratch.

One of her friends gave birth to a new baby, so a gift of food was in order. She placed a chicken and broccoli casserole, still frozen, on a tray in the floor of her minivan. Her plan was to deliver it to her friend’s home immediately after she retrieved her son, Joey, from soccer practice. At the soccer field, she discovered that near the end of practice, Joey had been injured. The mother arrived to find him on the ground with the soccer coach attending him.

“He has hurt his right arm,” the coach said. “He needs to go to the emergency room.”

The nurse/mother looked at her child and his distorted elbow. “We need ice on this to keep down the swelling,” she said, taking charge.

“Where can we find ice?” the coach asked.

“Just help me get him to the minivan,” the woman directed.

Before driving to the hospital to have the dislocated elbow set, the resourceful mom situated her injured child in the front seat. Folding his sweatshirt across his legs, she put the frozen dish in his lap.

Fastening her child’s seat belt, she instructed, “Joey, put your elbow down onto the casserole. It will make it feel better.”

Casseroles can be comfort food in more ways than one.


Kirk H. Neely





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©October 2013



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