Sourdough Bread Pudding, Funerals, and the Power of Communion

Michael Manly Miles was hard drinking and hard working, angry and funny, fearless and reckless, one hell of a farmer, and one loyal son of a bitch. If he hated you, you probably had it coming, and if he loved you, well, he loved you with a fierceness that most people never understood.  I never got to meet Mike, but what I came to understand from more than 150 family members, 300 friends, co-workers, and community members last week was that Mike loved both his family and his closest friends in a way I can barely fathom. His little brother delivered a funny and proud eulogy that ended with Mike’s motto: “Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you.”  I got the impression that some of the folks who showed up to his funeral did so not because they loved him necessarily, but because they were afraid of what his ghost might do if they didn’t.  Some of the stories I heard were just good old fashioned drinking stories: “…then I saw his naked silhouette in the doorway, brandishing a shotgun in one hand and a beer in the other.”  Other stories were of the Paul Bunyan variety: “Michael once picked up a boulder and carried it out of a cornfield on his shoulder.” “He climbed cell phone towers like a spider monkey, with a hundred pounds of gear on him, a hundred feet in the air, and he never strapped in once.” His little sister said she once told him that it took more muscles to frown than to smile (he preferred a “tough” exterior). Mike’s response: “That’s why I’m so strong.”

I spent last week trying to be helpful to Mike’s family, most of whom I’d never met until then; I tried to keep up with dishes or laundry or cooking when I could and sat and listened to stories about Mike when there was nothing more I could do. His mother’s stories were the best ones, told to me after her other kids went to bed; they were hilarious and painful at the same time, often exaggerated, yet somehow the most honest ones I heard.  I worry about the days ahead of her.  She thanked me profusely countless times for the small chores I did, but what I couldn’t explain to her or her family was that I was the one who was grateful to them, for what I was able to witness.  I was raised in a family that is thick with love and forgiveness and solidarity.  But this family… it was like God magnified my family by tenfold, threw in some Catholicism, a few thousand acres of farmland, a family-owned grocery going back 3 generations, some extra musicians and poets, soldiers and sailors, a spunky little 8 month old with a heart defect, more step parents, grandparents, and siblings than I could keep up with, (I was told, again and again, “In this family, there is no ‘step’”) a bunch of Harleys and leather, and enough laughter to keep Comedy Central in business for a millennia.  But what overwhelmed me was the magnificent, iron-clad loyalty and love that everyone seemed to feel for one another, in spite of the differences they may have had, justifiable or otherwise.  It’s real love; you know, the kind that shows up even after you’ve made a mistake, or been an asshole, or stolen money, or wrecked the car. The kind of love that weeps openly in the airport when a dead son’s father and older brother finally see one another. The kind of love that sweeps away bad blood and old grudges in a single instant. The kind of love that opens up its arms and whispers “we’re gonna be alright” to the siblings left behind.

Mike's younger brother and older brother playing guitars on the front porch of the farmhouse where they all grew up.

I heard Mike’s two brothers play their guitars one afternoon, the younger one singing with the kind of broken down soul I’ve only heard from the likes of Howlin’ Wolf or Nina Simone.  There have been a few breathless moments in my life where I believe I’ve witnessed the transcendent, something beyond categories, beyond joy or pain, the sound or sight or taste of what it means to simply be alive, to know love and loss in the same breath.  This was one of those moments, and I followed the music down the stairs but was stopped by the sight of Mike’s step-father weeping in a kitchen chair, Mike’s mother’s hand on his back, trying to keep him steady while she must have been falling apart herself. I could only turn and go back up the stairs because I knew that no matter how open Mike’s family was to me, their loss was an intimate loss, one that I can only partially understand in stories, in songs, or photographs.  I have a son and he is alive and well.  But Mike’s family is living with the cold hard bitch of death’s reality.

While I listened to the rest of the song from a room on the second floor of their farmhouse, I wondered if this was Mike’s real funeral, the procession in the Catholic church a mere imitation of a song that every angel in Heaven and every demon in Hell must have heard.

We take food to families in mourning.  And for good reason; who wants to cook for visiting relatives? Who wants to cook at all? Or shop for groceries? Or do the dishes? But more importantly, food binds families and communities.  It’s communion. Food is transformed into the body and blood of those who consume it, and so in a small way, those who eat together become one another.  We offer food to those who mourn to remind them that they share a body still with the living.  I think when we make funeral food, we should think of these things. The dish we carry to a mother who has lost her son is a gift unlike the dish we carry to a picnic or Superbowl party. Funeral food is a sign of respect and a reminder to the living that they are part of a community and that there is still living to be done.

The following recipe is for a bread pudding that I made the night before Michael’s death. I figure with the time change between Alaska and the town where he died, I was probably pulling it out of the oven the same time he was hollering at the Pearly Gates for someone to open the door before he busted it down.  I gave some to Mike’s brother the next morning, just hours before he found out his brother was gone, and he told me it tasted like “something angels might have pooped out,” which was his clumsy way of saying it tasted pretty good.  Anyways, it seems fitting for the occasion, so here it goes:

Sourdough Bread Pudding

Sourdough Bread Pudding (a.k.a. Angel Poop Bread Pudding)

  • 1 large loaf of stale sourdough bread (Use the best artisan loaf you can find. Mine was about the size and shape of a deflated soccer ball, and I used the outer layer, not just the soft insides)
  • 1 cup of heavy whipping cream
  • 3 1/2 cups of milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 stick of butter, diced into 1/4 inch cubes (or use frozen butter grated through the cheese grater)
  • 1 1/2 cups of bakers sugar
  • 1 bag of dried sweet cherries (I think I used a 7oz. bag)
  • 1/2 of a freshly grated nutmeg (about 1 tsp of the already grated kind)
  • 1 tsp salt

1. Cut the bread into 1 or 1/2 inch cubes
2. In a large mixing bowl combine the eggs, cream, milk, sugar, nutmeg, salt, and half of the butter. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
3. Add the bread to the mixture and stir until the bread has soaked up all of the liquid, but don’t stir so much that it gets mushy.
4. Pour the mixture into a large, greased baking dish (I used Crisco)
5. Add the other half of the butter to the top of the dish.
6. Bake at 350F until the center becomes mostly firm. Mine took about an hour.

Madara Hill

The Tart Little Piggy

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