Sweet-and-sour meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, pans of homemade rolls, salads, cakes and pies.
The ingredients are festive enough for a light-hearted picnic. But in Darrington, home cooking is often the first response to somber news. When the close-knit town loses one of its own, the notion of comfort food becomes literal.
Families need not ask. Whether the person who died was young or elderly, an old-timer or newcomer, feasts known as Darrington memorial dinners are lovingly served at the Darrington Community Center.
“We do phone trees – ‘Hi, this is Joyce, you know why I’m calling,’” said Joyce Jones, Darrington’s mayor. Last week, memorial dinner cooks learned their contributions would be needed for four gatherings.
“I had to make a special call for Seth,” Jones said.
Seth Cook, the boy who stole the town’s heart as he lived with a disease that rapidly aged his frail body, died Monday at age 13.
For the dinner following Seth’s memorial service Saturday at Darrington’s Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church, Frankie Nations was increasing her customary dish of sweet-and-sour meatballs from 10 pounds to 15 pounds.
“We’re expecting a big crowd,” Nations, 75, said Friday. “I just like to help people. It makes it easier for them on that final day.”
In addition to the gathering honoring Seth Cook, the memorial dinner group played host to big meals Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. One gathering had as many as 300 people.
It was a poignant week in the town of about 1,200 people northeast of Arlington. “Everybody you see has either lost a friend or a family member,” Jones said Thursday. “Yet they come with food just to support each other.”
Before Saturday’s service for Seth, townspeople had honored 25-year-old Army veteran Kevin Walsh on Wednesday; 49-year-old Arlington grocery dairy manager Scott Christensen on Thursday; and on Friday, 90-year-old Rubye Lunsford, born in 1916 in North Carolina, one of the town’s original tarheels.
Darrington’s dinner tradition grew out of its ancestral ties to North Carolina. Many in town proudly proclaim family history in the Tarheel State.
Nations’ parents came to Darrington from tiny Whittier, N.C., in 1937 when Frankie was 5. “They came for the logging,” she said. “My dad logged in North Carolina, but here the trees were bigger.” Her late husband, Regal Nations, was also a North Carolinian.
Deep roots aren’t required to help out with the dinners, although Nations said a lifetime of country cooking has advantages. “New people move in, pretty soon they’re asking what they can bring,” said Nations, who organizes the big meals with Janet Cabe.
Nations is grateful for all contributions. “Don and Donna Janus get all our supplies. He does the ham, and mashed potatoes and gravy. And they’re not North Carolina people,” she said.
“I am so proud of these people, giving and giving,” Jones said. “They all have a trademark dish. They just do it, they start showing up with food and fill the refrigerator.
“These ladies are amazing,” Jones added. “It’s almost like the loaves and fishes, we’re never exactly sure how many people.”
The memorial dinner group has recently been raising money in hopes of putting air conditioning in the community center. They’ve held auctions and other fundraisers. While some families donate after a dinner, “it’s not needed and it’s not asked,” Jones said.
She said some families are stunned that the dinners are freely given. “They think they have to rent the hall, take a lot of food, pay a fee. We wipe all that off their list. They are very thankful,” Jones said.
“After so many things have gone wrong, something is going right,” she said. “I believe it starts the healing process.”
Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.