Cornflakes and Potatoes

She was slight. Elderly. She had an old kitchen that was lit up with smells and colors.

There is no place better than the humble kitchen of an American woman. If there is, I wouldn’t care to know about it. The linoleum floor. The enamel table with chipped edges. The stove with the stubborn oven door. Brillo pads in the sink.

And Lord, the smells. I could live and die in a good kitchen.

She was dusting her counters with flour on the day I interviewed her. She covered those countertops in snow, the way our ancestors have been doing ever since they deboarded the ark.

She wore one of those aprons that looks more like a cobbler’s apron. Two pockets. Floral print. She kneaded dough with frail hands. If you are ever lucky enough to see an elderly woman take out her aggression on a lump of lifeless dough, you are lucky enough.

When I visited her little kitchen it was long ago. I was on a long drive from Atlanta to Birmingham. Her son asked me to visit. I only had thirty minutes to spare.

The reason she told me to come that day was because she wanted to make one of my favorite casseroles, one she remembered that I mentioned in my books a few times.

I don’t even know what the casserole is called. I’m not sure it even has a proper name. It has little diced potatoes, mountains of cheese, and—this is the crucial part—Kellogg’s Corn Flakes on top.

When I was a kid, there was a lady in our church named Miss Patty who made this casserole for every get-together. As an adult, I have yet to find it again. I guess it’s an outdated church casserole now. It’s probably not stylish for modern women to put cornflakes on top piles of cheese anymore.

She made more than just casseroles. She cooked for local funerals, baby showers, anniversaries. And if you needed a wedding cake for your big day, but didn’t have much cash, she had you covered. You bought the ingredients; she made the cake for free.

These were real wedding cakes too, not the amateur variety. They were simple, pretty, and I understand they tasted incredible.

She had a photo album of the wedding cakes she made over the years. Polaroids, black-and-whites, and glossy photographs. Some photos dated back to the ‘50s.

The best part was that the cakes in the photos all looked the same. Everything else in the pictures changed as the years progressed—furniture, fashion, eyeglasses—but her cakes didn’t age.

She had a squadron of recipes. Batter frying was another specialty. She fried anything from yardbirds to watermelon rinds. Her butter beans were made the traditional way—nine beans, fifty sticks of unsalted butter.

“I cook by feel,” she told me in the interview.

I ended up staying for several hours in her kitchen while she cooked. At first I was taking notes on my legal pad for a story about her. Then I got swallowed up with the smells.

When the cornflake casserole was done, she covered it in foil and handed me the glass dish. She said, “Promise me you won’t eat it until you get to your hotel and you’re off the highway.”

A mother through and through.

We said goodbye, I drove away. The casserole sat in my front seat. When I hit Douglasville, I peeled back the tin foil, just to look. By Villa Rica, I dug in with a plastic spoon and drove with my knees. By Tallapoosa, half the casserole was gone and the other half was on my shirt.

I wrote a column about her. Then I sent it to her. She read it and told me liked it, but it embarrassed her. So she asked me not to publish it.

Here’s how our phone conversation went:

HER: Sean, it was a sweet story, but I’m afraid that if you publish it, well… All my friends will think I’m stuck up… And I just don’t want anyone thinking I’m proud.

ME: Yes, ma’am. I understand.

HER: I’m sorry, I know you worked real hard on it.

ME: It’s alright.

HER: Did you like that casserole?

ME: I absolutely adored it.

HER: Did you wait until you got to the hotel to eat it?

ME: I absolutely adored it.

I told her I wouldn’t run the story, but we kept in touch by email. Mostly, she sent me chain letters or forwarded corny jokes from her friends.

Here’s an actual joke she sent:

“Two old women were out shopping, spending big bucks, having a great time, buying shoes and clothes when a funeral procession drove by.

“One old woman paused to bow her head and close her eyes as the procession passed. The old woman’s friend said, ‘Oh, that was a very respectful thing to do.’ The woman answered, ‘Well I was married to him for thirty-seven years.’”

She probably sent that email while one of her cakes was rising.

I got another email one morning not so long ago. It was an email sent by her son to her whole family. Attached was an unpublished story that had been written a few years ago by some nameless writer who visited her kitchen. There was an accompanying note which read: “She was the best woman I ever knew, we will miss her.”

I would tell you more about her, but she wouldn’t want anyone to think she was proud.

I hope God likes cornflakes.


  1. Christina - January 19, 2021 7:02 am

    How lovely! You are spoiled Sean.

  2. Dean - January 19, 2021 7:29 am

    Great story

  3. Glenda Williams - January 19, 2021 8:32 am

    I was right there in the kitchen with you two as I read your story. I love your writing. My Doug and I have just celebrated 55 years of marriage on December 18. Each night after we go to bed he reads from a book to me. I wish we had kept count of all the books we have read. We lack 40 pages finishing the one he is reading now, and I want our next one to be one of yours. Do you have a suggestion as to which one you recommend?

  4. Annie Franklin - January 19, 2021 10:08 am

    Great rread.

  5. Michele Cooper - January 19, 2021 11:43 am

    Beautifully sweet! I just became a fan. You write the way I love to read.

  6. Alison - January 19, 2021 12:05 pm

    Sean, our family calls those “ funeral potatoes”, because they show up at meals after every funeral.
    Yes, they are delicious and yes, a lot of southern cooks are still making them!

  7. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - January 19, 2021 12:26 pm

    Glenda Williams, all Sean’s books are good. About half are collections of these short stories. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is his life story. You must get it if you’re a fan. “Stars of Alabama”, a novel, is my personal favorite. I’ve read it twice.

  8. Heidi - January 19, 2021 12:30 pm

    In Utah those are Funeral Potatoes, as Alison mentioned. Our family enjoys them at Christmas with our traditional ham. They are incredible. And yes, I would eat them in a car too.

  9. Suzie - January 19, 2021 1:17 pm

    I too make those potatoes with cornflakes …so yummy 😊😊

  10. Gay - January 19, 2021 1:36 pm

    They say that humans have 5 senses, you Sean have so many more. Thank you for your writing, the world is a better place because you were born.

  11. Wanda Purcell - January 19, 2021 1:49 pm

    Stars on Alabama is one of my favorites!

  12. Melanie - January 19, 2021 2:19 pm

    My condolences to her family. Thank you for letting Sean share this priceless memory with us. You were truly blessed. There’s an Angel in heaven wearing an apron and opening a box of corn flakes right now as we speak.

  13. Judith Frost Treadaway - January 19, 2021 2:20 pm

    Well written. I wonder if she is in the kitchen in God’s heaven. My sister joined forces last July, she was 90. Both she and I were/are cooks and often spoke of being put into the kitchen in heaven. I cook for my church for after service get-together. Homemade buttermilk biscuits stuffed with bacon, sausage, cheese, and some with jalapenos. Then there are the cakes, cookies, coconut/pecan/Kellogg’s corn flakes macaroons. And, yes, I cook from scratch. “But mama, I can’t make your biscuits or pie crust like you do,” even though I have provided recipes…..

  14. Kate - January 19, 2021 2:37 pm

    This story brought back so many memories of wonderful women in modest kitchens, some large, some very small, but all with wonderful smells and so much love. My mother, my many aunts, and older friends. The way they cooked and the wonderful food we ate and so took for granted when we were young are now precious memories. And I so remember the flour, always the flour, on the counters. Thank you Sean.

  15. Joseph Call - January 19, 2021 2:49 pm

    I love going to funerals and Church suppers just to taste the various permutations of Funeral Potatoes. Even when they’re made with the same recipe, they’re all delightfully different. After reading this, I realize that these kinds of gatherings are one of the things I miss in this Covid-19 era.

  16. Clark Hining - January 19, 2021 3:20 pm

    My grandma Neil’s kitchen was on the side of their large house. As you looked at the front of the house, the kitchen was to the right. The front porch was up high and rounded a corner where you could access the kitchen door from outside after about 20 or so paces. As you walk on the porch towards the kitchen to the right in the yard below were some of the largest elms in the world. So big I couldn’t reach the bottom limbs. I wanted to get up in those trees so badly. The Dutch Elm Disease swept them away one year. I was broken-hearted and shocked when I first saw the yard without them.
    The screen door to the kitchen helped to keep it cool inside. All the windows were usually open too. Grandma seemed to always be fanning herself in there. As you came in that door from the porch, there was a gas stove on the right side. Next to that stove was a box of strike anywhere matches in a holder that was fixed to the wall. I can still see grandma grab one, strike it , and light the oven. A sink and counter were opposite the porch door. To the right of the sink was a walk in pantry with a hanging sheet for a door. To the left of the sink was a doorway to the dining room. Just before that doorway was a small chalkboard for writing the names of needed items from the grocer. For the life of me I can’t seem to remember the refrigerator. It must have been near the stove.
    When you follow that path through the kitchen, you had to walk around a large table where we ate breakfast. That table was the biggest I’ve ever seen! Of course, the floor had a few squeaks. In the middle of the kitchen table was a glass vase in which were so many long handled tea spoons. When I say tea spoons, I mean long handled spoons with which to stir your tea. You see, this was Iowa; sugar was added( if you wanted it) to each individual glass. Mostly it sank to the bottom as the tea was already too cool to absorb it. ( another reason I stayed in the South. I wasn’t born in Georgia, but I got here as quick as I could.)
    When my family was there at my grandparents house, mom was usually in the kitchen with grandma. Aunt Paula was usually there also. ( I tried to sit next to my Aunt Paula every time as she was the prettiest of them all and she loved me more than anyone else)
    I can remember walking into the kitchen just to stand there, look at everything , and take in that wonderful aroma of…of…well, Heaven on earth. My mother ran me out of there so many times.
    Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, all sorts of veggies. There were also two small plates that I noticed at almost every meal. One with slices of loaf bread and one with sliced tomatoes. It seemed to me they were always there. For some reason I associate those two plates with grandpa.
    What I wouldn’t do to visit that child that I was so long ago. That irresponsible, no-worries, non-cynical , happy go lucky child, sitting around a huge dining table looking up at family.

  17. Helen De Prima - January 19, 2021 3:24 pm

    Loved this post, especially the joke.

  18. Sondra - January 19, 2021 3:29 pm

    Yes, these are called “funeral potatoes “, or as some of my family refers to them the potatoes with the cornflakes on top. Thanks for today’s good read.

  19. Johnnie Blackburn - January 19, 2021 3:45 pm

    Sean, I make mine with Hash Browns (shredded or diced it doesn’t matter). Here’s a recipe that won’t ever be as special but its good for memory making:

  20. Jan - January 19, 2021 3:51 pm

    Precious memories! Oh how they linger!

  21. Beth E. - January 19, 2021 4:02 pm

    Those are funeral potatoes here in the Midwest. I’ve seen them at every church basement funeral lunch I’ve ever been to. Some have hand-diced potatoes and hand-shredded cheese, and some use frozen hash browns and packaged shredded cheese, but they all have cornflakes on the top and are made with love.

  22. Donna Messervy - January 19, 2021 4:46 pm

    In our family we call it potato casserole! We never call them funeral potatoes! We like to feel happy eating them! I make four pans at a time when my nephews are eating! They are my grandson, Jack’s, absolutely favorite and I make them and deliver them to him! ❤️Nonna

  23. Jane - January 19, 2021 4:54 pm

    Perfect tribute.

  24. Katherine - January 19, 2021 5:05 pm

    Sean, it is called hash brown casserole and you can google the recipe. I’m sure it won’t be the same but it is pretty damn good!!👍

  25. Anne Godwin - January 19, 2021 5:31 pm

    “The stove with the stubborn oven door.” That sentence took me to the oldest kitchen in my childhood home. We remodeled it over the decades. For sixty years, Mom raised six children in that home. She was a small, faith-filled woman who was pregnant with the last child when Dad died by suicide. That house is a new home for a young woman who remodeled it to its best design yet. She’s now married with a young child. I wonder if the new owner has that potato casserole recipe? Thanks for continuing your daily writings.

  26. Lisa Wilcox - January 19, 2021 5:35 pm

    This post is gonna go in my folder of my favorites by you! Thank you for all of the great stuff that you wrote and share. God bless!

  27. Linda Moon - January 19, 2021 6:24 pm

    You made me think of lots of kitchens from Mama and her sisters. They resided in Georgia and Alabama. My childhood visits to Macon, GA created joy and, now, memories of messy, squishy freshly-fallen figs and fresh butterbeans. My own children went to Macon, too, after my childhood had turned to motherhood. They made their own memories of figs and butterbeans just like I did. Wow. God likes cornflakes, Sean. And He loves two generations of kin and kids who loved Aunts and Great Aunts!

  28. Tammy S. - January 19, 2021 6:34 pm

    Sounds like the world lost a sweet old soul. Can you imagine the feast she is having in heaven!! Hope she’s met my Mamaw Irvin. Sounds like they’d get along wonderfully. Thanks for sharing her with us all, Sean. As always, you took us all along to meet her. Showing off your gift yet again!!

  29. Rhonda Howell - January 19, 2021 7:30 pm

    Thanks for the kitchen table testimony. Words that you don’t just hear but can smell and almost taste. I told my daughter the other day when passing along some family history. You will only remember it if I can make you feel it. Enjoyed it.

  30. Sandi. - January 19, 2021 10:01 pm

    Clark Hining, I savored what you wrote about childhood remembrances from your grandmother’s kitchen. No doubt many others enjoyed it, too. i;m sure Sean is one of them.

  31. Dawnie B - January 20, 2021 12:37 am

    Lovely, heartfelt tribute to a humble and true God-filled & loving woman. She’s a beautiful soul!

  32. angie5804 - January 20, 2021 2:22 am

    I have been making this Potato Casserole for years! I first got the recipe from my brother’s mother-in-law. I’d have to admonish my second son to go easy on it at church suppers so someone else could have some.

  33. pdjpop - January 20, 2021 2:27 pm

    There is no better sweetness than the love injected into a recipe by the hands of a wonderful woman at home in her kitchen. Loving hands, loving heart all enjoyed by an admiring recipient.
    We are so blessed having these wonderful ladies lovingly sharing a part of themselves. I miss mom every day.

  34. Robert M Brenner - January 21, 2021 1:19 pm

    Touched. My ❤️! Thanks

  35. Joann Thompson - January 23, 2021 9:26 pm

    I’m sure you’ve already been inundated by the casserole recipe, but I’ll be happy to send it to you, if you like….I made it last month for a family dinner. I know it won’t be the same, just like my mama’s orange pound cake and cornbread dressing never turn out as good as hers, but it will be close.

  36. Joann Thompson - January 23, 2021 9:34 pm

    Loved these memories of yours. Reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen in Mississippi, except the pantry was to the left of the stove and sink, and had another door that opened into the dining room. It was somewhat formal, but I only got to eat there one time–the day after my wedding. We children always ate in the kitchen at the long plank table with a heavy plastic tablecloth and benches on either side. Before my Pawpaw died, he sat at one end. I don’t think I ever remember my Mammy sitting down when we were there. She was always up cooking.

  37. Julie - February 5, 2021 2:49 am

    God doesn’t like cornflakes…He LOVES them!


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