funeral food, and a recipe: lemon buttermilk pie

It took me three days to make a pie last week.

On the first day, I diced the cold, unsalted butter into cubes and stored the small nuggets of butter in a plastic container in the refrigerator. I think that was the day my sister and I went to my mom’s house to meet with the minister, to plan the details of Dad’s funeral.

On the second day, I carefully weighed the flour and measured the sugar and salt. Using the pastry cutter, I cut the butter into the flour and drizzled in ice water, finally using my hands to pull together the piecrust dough. That was the day we took Mom shopping for black dresses to wear to the funeral. The dough, in two plastic wrapped discs, waited patiently on a shelf in the refrigerator next to the bagels and cream cheese.

On the third day, I floured the large, wooden breadboard I keep stored upright in the pantry. I unwrapped the butter-speckled dough, and once it warmed up a bit, I rolled the dough into a large circle. It wasn’t a perfect circle; it never is. When the dough felt tight beneath the rolling pin, I paused and let it rest, lifting the edges to scatter a bit more flour underneath. When the dough relaxed into itself, I took the rolling pin to it again, shaping it under gentle pressure.

After another rest in the fridge, and then in the freezer, I blind baked the crust, using old coins from our change jar as pie weights. The custard filling came together quickly while the crust was baking. It’s an easy pie, really, this lemon buttermilk pie. Eggs and buttermilk and sugar. Some lemon juice and lemon zest. Some whisking. It baked for an hour before I took it out of the oven. When it was done, just before noon, I changed out of my jeans and put on my black dress. The funeral was at 2 pm.

It seems silly, to make a pie before your father’s funeral. We never even ate any of the pie that day. It would be the next day before I felt ready to slice it.

Friends and family showed their love for my father and their support for us in so many ways, and one of the most meaningful and memorable ways was through gifts of food.

After the funeral, we returned to my mother’s house where so many of her friends had prepared and brought all sorts of dishes. There was a green salad, potato salad, and deviled eggs. There were casseroles of all types: chicken casserole, broccoli and cheese casserole, macaroni and cheese. There was a spiral cut ham and rolls for sandwiches, fried chicken, and roast chicken. There were perfectly-salted acre peas and peppery creamed corn and fresh strawberries and three different types of melon. There were sweets: two varieties of brownies, a pecan pound cake, a lemon pound cake, a chocolate layer cake, and more. There was sweet tea, unsweetened tea, and lemonade.

I’m not sure whether funeral food is strictly a southern thing, but if it is, I’m glad I live in the south. I am so grateful to everyone who prepared food for our family during this time. I’ve eaten a lot of takeout over the past two weeks, and while takeout is usually something I’m okay with, I’d had enough. I craved a home cooked meal, but I didn’t have the energy to cook it myself. The chicken pot pie and blueberry jello salad that my sister-in-law made for us ranked far higher than the Chinese takeout I usually love. The chicken fettuccini alfredo casserole and the baked ham were ten times more satisfying than the Domino’s pizza we’ve relied on too often.

I finally had a slice of pie yesterday afternoon, and it was good pie. It reminded me of my grandmother’s chess pie, but with less overt sweetness and more lemon flavor.

I never had the chance to make this pie for my father, and I sure wish I had. He would have loved it. He would have asked for seconds.

Yield: 1 9-inch pie.

Cook Time: 1 hour

Lemon Buttermilk Pie

Buttermilk pie is a classic southern custard-based pie. It's easy to make from ingredients you probably already have on hand. This pie would make an excellent addition to a potluck, and in my own mind, it fits the definition of the perfect funeral food - easy and comforting.


Ingredients for Crust:
1 single-crust pie dough
Egg wash (1 egg white + 1 teaspoon water)

Ingredients for Filling:
3 large eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup full-fat buttermilk
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
Zest of one lemon


Blind bake the crust:

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12-inch circle. Carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate, and trim all but a 1/2-inch overhang. Tuck the excess dough under itself and crimp the edges. Place in freezer for 20 minutes. While piecrust is chilling, heat oven to 425 degrees, and place oven rack in middle position.

Prick the bottom and sides of the piecrust several times with a fork, then line the pie plate with two sheets of nonstick foil, with the nonstick side facing the piecrust. Fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil, brush the bottom of the crust gently with the egg wash, then bake for another 3 minutes. Decrease oven temperature to 325 degrees.

Make the Filling:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolk, granulated sugar, salt, and flour. Add in the melted butter, buttermilk, vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Whisk the filling until thoroughly combined.

Pour the filling into the shell and carefully transfer pie to oven. Bake for one hour, or until the filling is set and barely moves when jiggled. Let the pie cool on a rack; serve at room temperature or chilled. Store in the refrigerator.