There are two defining entities to which 90% of my idiosyncrasies can be attributed. (The remaining ten percent can be blamed squarely on my parents and their genetics.)
There are rules I follow, phrases that shoot through my mind, habits I hold that are irreversibly ingrained in my subconscious. No amount of therapy can fix them, no amount of distance can lessen their influence.
I grew up in the South, and I grew up in the Episcopal Church.
Of course even if you didn’t grow up in one of these subcultures, I’m sure you have idiosyncrasies of your own; they’re just probably a bit more normal than mine. But don’t feel sorry for me. I actually relish my cultural and liturgical quirks.
If you grew up in the South, there are certain rules you know and follow.
Alcohol: There are exactly two drinks that are socially acceptable before the five o’clock cocktail hour: mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. Anything else, and I s’wanee, you’d better make your way to the Episcopal Church at 4:00 on Sunday afternoons for the meeting of (whisper) alcoholics. The coffee will be hot. Exceptions to this rule: both men and women are allowed to drink beer in the afternoon if, and only if, you’re on a boat or fishing on a dock. You also don’t bat an eye when your dinner guests show up at your house with their Tervis Tumbler of bourbon half empty. “Open carry” refers to both sidearms and cocktails, but again, only after five o’clock.
Table Manners: All Southerners know how to properly set a table. For your entire life, if you go to someone’s home for dinner and find the fork, knife, and spoon on the same side of the plate, you shudder a little bit inside. If you’re a female guest of honor, you will instinctively know your place is at the right side of your male host. The male guest of honor is seated to the right of the hostess. Children and other guests are carefully scattered around the table at the discretion of your hostess, but ages and genders will be taken into account to have a balanced table. The beginning of the meal does not begin at the end of the blessing, but rather when your hostess lifts her fork. If you’re hungry, you hope your hostess isn’t extra chatty. You know you never pass the salt shaker hand-to-hand, but rather place it on the table beside the person who asked you to pass it. Should it fall over during transport, you’d better remember to throw a shake over your left shoulder. Elbows never belong on the table. Ever. Ever. Acceptable topics: The weather, your recent trips, and sharing “interesting information” about mutual friends. (Note: This means gossip, but only done tastefully. The understanding between tasteful and distasteful gossip will be acquired with age and experience.) Unacceptable conversation topics: Sex, bathroom humor, politics, and distasteful gossip. Exception: Politics may be discussed only if you know your host and hostess share the same party affiliation.
Thank-you Notes: When invited to someone’s house for any reason, you must call to thank your host within 24 hours if you want to avoid writing a thank-you note. If you miss the window, a hand written note is required. When you write the note, you know exactly which stationary to use. Your choices include formals, informals, casual (which is decidedly different than informals), and fun. It’s not uncommon to be told during baby showers that one of your gifts is being released from the expectation of thank-you notes, but you’d never actually take your hostess and her guests up on that offer; you write them anyway. That offer is never extended during bridal showers. The mother-to-be has six weeks to write her thank-you notes that “aren’t expected,” and the bride-to-be also has six weeks to write her notes for shower gifts. According to Southern etiquette, the new wife technically has twelve months to write notes for her wedding gifts, however notes sent past six months are inexcusable. Notes sent between three and six months are socially accepted, though frowned upon. The bride who has all of her thank you notes sent in under three months will be highly praised with I just don’t know how you found the time to send a note so quickly, I know you’ve been so busy setting up your home. Congratulations. You have passed the test and are now considered a Southern woman.
If you grew up in the Episcopal Church, there are also things you instinctively know.
Pew Etiquette: Never sit in the front pew. The front pew is reserved for two types of people: curmudgeons and single women who have a crush on the male priest. Exception: In the case of baptisms, the family and godparents of the baby being baptized will sit on the front row, that week only. Curmudgeons and single women will be found one of two places: on the front row of the dreaded other side or directly behind the family, usually on the third row. They will have been moved by the usher, as they have undoubtedly ignored the “Reserved” pew marker embroidered on red liturgical velvet. Certain pews are reserved for families who have been sitting in that exact pew for generations. These pews are not marked in any tangible way. You will know these reserved pews in one of two ways: regular attendance or when you’re told, Excuse me, you’re in my pew.
Titles: You know if you’re in a liturgically “high” church or “low” church based on the bulletin. If the male priest goes by Father First Name you’re in a low church. If he goes by Father Last Name, you’re in a high church. You’re in a rare subculture called Snake Belly Low if your priest goes by Mister Last Name. Female priests are almost always called Mother First Name. You don’t know if this is an insult to the gender or not. Something feels awkward about it, but you’re an Episcopalian, so you’re certainly not a misogynist. After all, “male and female he created them, male and female we ordain them.” Note: For your entire life, those in ordained ministry will be referred to as priests, because the word Pastor catches in your throat like cud. Also, if ordination doesn’t include vestments and a bishop, it’s not a real ordination. I’m looking at you, Baptists.
Incense: If you’re a true Episcopalian, you will know how to navigate a service with bells and smells even if your home church didn’t do it weekly. The smell of incense will always remind you of Easter and Christmas, and never covering up the smell of marijuana in your parents’ basement. Even if you used incense to cover up pot fumes, it will first and foremost remind you of High and Holy days, not high days.
Liturgical Jokes: At any given time you’ll be able to come up with at least ten You know you’re an Episcopalian if jokes. You’ll never be able to hear The Mamas and Papa’s sing Monday, Monday without automatically changing the lyrics to “Maundy Thursday, Bah-da bah-da-da-da.” You probably have scars from your mother pinching her fingernails into your thigh to make you and your brother stoplaughingrightthisinstant each year when the priest said, Remember that you are but(t) dust while imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday. You haven’t fully lived if you haven’t sung “Lead On, O Kinky Turtle” with a group of your friends during the hymn Lead on, O King Eternal. Episcopal bonus points if you’ve also sung the guitar version during summer camp, sweaty arms around your friends’ waists (with plenty of Holy Spirit room between the genders) while gathered around the campfire.
At 31, I’m in the sweet spot of my roots: I’m new enough that I’m not so stuck in my ways that I’m a pain in the ass (How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? Ten: One to screw it in, and nine to say how much they liked the old one), but old enough that I’ve earned my voice. I find I’m disgusted with nouveau liturgicals who post BCP quotes as their Facebook statuses and wear their collars everywhere from the movie theatre to the farmer’s market. Here’s a tip to you newbies: If you only know one version of the doxology, and if the pages of your BCP still crunch upon opening, refrain from pontificating as an authority. We know it’s new and exciting for you, but it’s also profoundly annoying and dates you…not in a good way. Similarly, there’s nothing more pitiful than a Yankee moving to the South and saying all y’all. Unless you know the difference between Dinner and Supper and have at least one gelatinized dish at your Easter brunch, you’re new and we know it.
As the old joke goes, if there’s anything the South and the Episcopal church do well, it’s Hatch, Match, and Dispatch. Pinterest displays page after page of Southern baby showers. Entire books are devoted to Southern weddings. The wedding committee at any Episcopal Church, particularly in the South, is more organized than the Chinese military. I can promise you that wedding will start on time, whether the bride is dressed or not, and the drunk groomsman will be sobered by fear alone when he comes face-to-face with the 83-year-old wedding coordinator whose quietly fierce temperament is topped with her never-leaves-home-without-it corsage. Now, you want to see something really special? There has never been a more organized tactical mission than a Southern funeral. After all, Being Dead is No Excuse. Within hours of a death announcement, the church silver has been polished, the surviving family members have at least three dozen country ham biscuits in their freezer, and meals have been lined up for a month. The majority of those meals will be casseroles, appropriately alternating between chicken, beef, and even the occasional seafood dish, allergies permitting.
All Southerners, and all Episcopalians, have condensed soups stock-piled in their pantries for such a time as this. It doesn’t matter how keto-paleo-whole30-natural-organic you are, if you have Southern and/or Episcopal roots, you keep condensed soups on hand. No casserole is complete without them, and casseroles run in our veins.
This week, we had a death in our church. I may live in the Midwest now, but old habits die hard, and I had a poppy seed chicken casserole* in the oven the next day. Jet, our oldest, helped me cook.
Momma, why are you making a casserole?
Because, hunny, when someone dies, you take their family a meal. It’s a way to show love and empathy.
But, why a casserole?
And then it hit me. To a Southerner, and to an Episcopalian, there is nothing more comforting for a scared family, a grieving widow, or new parents than a warm casserole. Nothing says love quite like high-fat condensed soups mixed with chicken. These cheap ingredients stretch and bake into bubbly concoctions that comfort our hearts and our bellies at times in life when we’re stretched as much as those cheap ingredients. Casseroles are easy. Life isn’t.
This week I got to share the importance of the casserole with my son, and during his life, I’ll get to share with him all of these other things. These rules and traditions that run through my veins might seem meaningless to outsiders, they might seem dated, or unimportant. But beneath the rules, behind the traditions, are people who went before me, who taught me these things. They taught me that the thank you note isn’t important just because it’s what you do, but because the person whom you’re thanking is a gift. Elbows on the table aren’t actually a big deal, but respect is. Ancient traditions aren’t just a cool new Facebook status, but holy moments that form and shape us. Casseroles aren’t just ingredients that stretch, they’re a symbol of people filling in the gaps that life creates.
*Poppy Seed Chicken Casserole
1 bag frozen chicken tenders (the bag I used was 40oz/2.5lbs)
1 can cream of chicken soup
16 ounces sour cream
3 tsp poppy seeds
1-2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce, depending on preference
Salt/pepper and garlic powder to taste
1 sleeve Ritz crackers, crushed
¼ cup butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350. Cook and shred the chicken tenders and mix with the next four ingredients. Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste, and put the mixture in a 9×13” baking dish. In a separate bowl, mix crushed crackers with melted butter. Top the casserole with the crackers, and bake until casserole is bubbly around the edges, around 30-35 minutes.
Disclaimer: I grew up in the Episcopal Church, but many of these traditions can also apply to Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and sometimes even Baptists, but never, ever, Calvinists.