I liketa died laughing when I read this book, Being Dead Is No Excuse - The Official Southern Ladies Guide To Hosting the Perfect Funeral. And after passing it to so many friends, it sits on my kitchen windowsill with the only other cookbooks I own: The Silver Palate Cookbook, The New Basics Cookbook, White Trash Cooking and White Trash Cooking II: Recipes for Gatherin's.
Besides the humor, which causes me to easily waste an hour when I am trying to look up a recipe, the recipes are authentic and as my friend's aunt used to say "propah." If you need to know what a perlow is or want to make something in aspic, this is your book. I can't recommend it enough!
An excerpt from Chapter One: Dying Tastefully in the Mississippi Delta:
After the solemnity of the church service and finality of the grave, the people of the Mississippi Delta are just dying to get to the house of the bereaved for the reception. This is one of the three times a Southerner gets out all the good china and silver: the other two are christenings and weddings. The silver has most likely been specially polished for the occasion. Polishing silver is the Southern lady's version of grief therapy.
Southern ladies have a thing about polishing silver. We'd be hard pressed to tell you how many of our friends and their mothers have greeted the sad news of a death in the family by going straight to the silver chest and starting to polish everything inside. Maybe it has something to do with an atavistic memory of defending our silver from the Yankees, but it does ensure that the silver will be sparkling for the reception, which almost always follows the funeral.
Friends and family begin arriving with covered dishes, finger foods, and sweets as soon as the word is out that somebody has died. We regard it as a civic duty to show up at the house and at the funeral because what we call a "big funeral" is respectful to the dead and flattering to the surviving relatives. After the cemetery, people go back to the house to be received by the family. Sometimes we talk bad about the deceased between the grave and the aspic, but we straighten up and are on best behavior the minute we get to the house.
During the reception, we gossip, tell stories about the deceased, and maybe indulge in a toddy or two. (Our county used to be "dry," but all that means is that we drink like fish, though we do make a special, if not always successful, effort to behave well at funerals-see "I Was So Embarrassed I Liketa Died," page 99.) You can't bury a self-respecting Deltan without certain foods. Chief among these is tomato aspic with homemade mayonnaise-without which you practically can't get a death certificate-closely followed by Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake, and Virginia's Butterbeans. "You get the best food at funerals," we always say, and it's true. Funeral procedure is something that we all just know. A legion of friends working behind the scenes, coordinating the food, makes sure that the essential Delta death foods are represented in sufficient quantities. The best friend of the lady of the house, along with members of the appropriate church committee, swing into action without prompting. Almost everybody who attends the burial automatically stops by the house afterward, and it's a social occasion. One friend, on being thanked for attending a funeral, blurted out, "No, thank you! I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
The burial, which is solemn though rarely entirely devoid of humor, most likely takes place at the old cemetery on South Main Street. The old cemetery is one of the best addresses in Greenville, Mississippi. Being buried anywhere else is a fate worse than death in Greenville. The FFGs-that's First Families of Greenville-would simply refuse to die if they weren't assured of a spot. Not that the old cemetery is strictly FFG. Not by a long shot. Lola Belle Crittenden, bless her heart, had to plant a huge hedge around her ancestral plot. Why? The neighbors. "They're so tacky," Lola Belle huffed.
Although we always plan to have a good time at the reception, we revere the dead. Ancestor worship is as valid a form of religion as the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Episcopal denominations in the Mississippi Delta. The cemetery is so sacred to the memory of our dead relatives that the whole town was up in arms when the local newspaper desecrated it. They did this by posing a high-school beauty queen in front of one of our most important graveyard monuments for a picture. Nothing has upset us quite so much before or since. For days on end nobody could talk about anything else, and the paper's Letters to the Editor page was filled with aggrieved missives. Old ladies shuddered at the thought that similar sacrileges might one day be committed on their graves. The paper had to grovel for forgiveness in print or face a serious drop in circulation. The newspaper was owned by Yankees, and, being outsiders, they just didn't know any better.
We're people with a strong sense of community, and being dead is no impediment to belonging to it. We won't forget you just because you've up and died. We may even like you better and visit you more often. As the former Presbyterian minister used to say in his justly celebrated funeral oration (I'd like to have a dime for every time I've heard it), dying just means you've "graduated."
We're good about remembering the dead with flowers on just about every holiday from Christmas Day to Groundhog Day. There's one family that was so intent on remembering Mama that they insisted on having her photographed in her coffin. The photographer balked but was finally persuaded. Afterward, the family flatly refused to pay. The eldest son explained why: "Mama looked so sad."
The old cemetery sees quite a bit of traffic, from the living and the dead. "This is a hard place to get out of," we invariably chortle when navigating our way through the gates and back onto Main Street. Some people, no doubt attracted by the prestige and the quiet, bucolic setting, have added to overcrowding problems by moving to the old cemetery years after they actually died. When Adelle Atkins, a widow, married James Gilliam, a Greenville widower, she insisted on bringing her late husband, Harry along. She asked whether she could re-bury him on the Gilliam family plot.
Adelle's new in-laws-alas, already beginning to be packed into their plot like sardines in a can-were appalled. They were obsessed with who would go where when the day came. And, besides, they hated the notion of new dead people coming in and just taking over. But Addle is a determined woman, and she would not back down. Luckily for her, the Miss Finlays, two maiden lady schoolteachers, lived-or rather their dead relatives were buried-right next door to the Gilliams. Being old maids, they did not face the problem of potential overcrowding and were glad to have some extra cash. Adelle purchased half their plot and-voila!-Harry moved to Greenville.
We worry a lot about what will happen when the old cemetery fills up. Whenever Alice Hunt, who lives in New York, comes to Greenville, she goes straight to the cemetery and stretches out on her spot to reassure herself that nobody has encroached. She plans to wait for the final trumpet next to her Mama. Her big fear is ending up in the new part of the cemetery where, she says, she doesn't know a soul. There are a few fortunate families who don't have to worry about their future resting places because they still have private family cemeteries on plantations. This carries even more status than the old Greenville cemetery, but it's a lot of trouble. Jane Jeffreys Claiborne has spent her entire adult life fretting about the state of the old Claiborne cemetery on Woodville Plantation. Every time old Mrs. Claiborne got the sniffles, Jane Jeffreys lovingly put a gardener to work. She wanted the best for her mother-in-law, a funeral worthy of a Claiborne. Old Mrs. Claiborne would take one look, note the work going on in her honor, and immediately perk up. It worked better than penicillin. One day, of course, Mrs. Claiborne did die, and the cemetery looked so beautiful it made the rest of us envious. We were all thinking the same thing: I wish my family still had a private cemetery. Note the still. There are few things considered nicer than having your own cemetery.
Cremation is a possible solution to the overcrowding problem. But it's still a new and dicey proposition in the Delta. The last time somebody was cremated, his ashes were sprinkled from a crop duster. We all ran for cover. We liked him fine, but we didn't want him all over our good clothes. But you've got to say this: the folks who owned the property where the ashes were scattered had a darned good cotton crop the next year.
Maribell Wilson, whose father died in a hospital in Texas, had a different kind of problem. Maribell lived according to the cardinal rule of Southern ladyhood: Never learn to do anything you don't have to do. Maribell always needed somebody to drive her places. She finally relented and got a license and eventually became one of the worst drivers in the Delta, which is saying a lot. She was alone with her daddy when he died in Texas. Maribell had him cremated, as he had wished, and set out for home in a rental car with Daddy in a little box. Unfortunately, not being overly familiar with highway signs and such, Maribell got lost again and again and ended up on every back road between San Antonio and the Greenville city limits. It was hot as Hades, and Maribell kept the windows down. (She could have turned on the air conditioner, but nobody had ever showed her how.) When Maribell pulled into the driveway and opened the box, she was surprised to discover that Daddy had blown away on the ride home.
Then there was the man who took his Daddy to Memphis to scatter him in the big city where Daddy had grown up. He had to meet some friends for lunch and unwisely left Daddy in the office of a coworker, who carelessly put Daddy in her out-box. Unfortunately, somebody accidentally removed poor Daddy while she wasn't paying attention. Even though they searched high and low, Daddy was never found. Clearly, the cremation angle needs a little work to be viable in the Mississippi Delta.
Southern women always want to look their best-even if they happen to be dead. Our local undertaker, Bubba Boone, understands this. We brag that Bubba can make you look better than a plastic surgeon can, though, unfortunately, you do have to be dead to avail yourself of his ministrations. He did an outstanding job on Sue Dell Potter, a retired waitress. Sue Dell expressed a strange desire to go into the ground looking exactly as she had in her long-past waitress days. We went to call on Sue Dell at the funeral home and-lo and behold-she sported a big, teased bouffant and, unless you'd known her back when she was waiting tables and flirting up a storm at Jim's Cafe on Washington Avenue, you'd never have believed it was Sue Dell. But we feel certain Sue Dell was smiling down from heaven (with her now fire-engine-red lips) and thanking Bubba for his excellent work.
We'd better warn you not to put too much credence in the dates carved on the headstones. We Southern women tend to lie about our age-even when we're dead. Allison Parker, who always had a thing for younger men, made a complete fool of herself by knocking off five years. We died laughing when we saw the stone, because, if anybody looked her age, it was Allison Parker.
In the South, the casket is sometimes left open for visitation at the funeral home or when the body is brought home. There's nothing like a receiving line with somebody laid out a few feet away. Roberta Shaw used to be so afraid of dead bodies that she wouldn't allow even her own poor mother, Mrs. Robert Shaw, to fulfill her lifelong dream of lying in state on the dining room table in the big formal dining room at Runymeade Plantation. She has since overcome this fear, and she wants to atone for what she believes must have been a huge disappointment for Mrs. Shaw. Now, whenever a friend or relative dies, Roberta crouches by the coffin and whispers to them. "Well, you'll never guess who just walked in," she whispered to Augusta Jones. Augusta, being dead, had absolutely no idea.
One of the rules in the South is that the newly dead are never left alone-somebody always sits with the coffin, day or night. Don't ask me why, but it wouldn't be right to leave a relative unattended. It used to be that most people took the body home before the burial and received guests with Mama right there. This custom, regrettably, isn't followed as often as it once was, though some families still uphold the tradition. The last time somebody did, it turned out sort of awkward. The body, which belonged to a local matriarch, stayed in the living room for an entire week. Somebody joked that the family was waiting for the out-of-town relatives to get the lowest airline fares possible. If you didn't make a sharp left turn into the dining room, you ended up face to face with the late wife of the town's leading lawyer.
We are sad at funerals, but there's no such thing as a funeral without a humorous moment. Once a visiting Episcopal minister took a step backward and fell smack into the grave. It certainly livened up the service. Since he went on to advocate advanced ideas, some of us wish we'd hit him on the head with a shovel. Not many have forgotten the time one of our more intellectual citizens died, and the Presbyterian minister, who'd known her forever, was out of town. The family rustled up a supply minister who'd never laid eyes on her. The night before the funeral, the family gathered to tell him all about the deceased, her fortitude in the face of a long sickness, her appreciation of art and literature. The sisters, knowing their big sister would want it, requested the minister to read some poetry, meaning maybe a bit of Shakespeare or Keats. But the visiting divine chose "Keep a-Goin'." ("'Taint no use to sit and whine 'cause the fish ain't on your line; Bait your hook an' keep on tryin', keep a-goin'.") The bereaved sisters were doubled over with laughter. If you can't find something to laugh about, you will end up crying.
Here are some recipes that will come in handy if you want to die as tastefully as we do in the Mississippi Delta.
Bourbon Boiled Custard
While this boiled custard is delicious on its own, it also can be used to dress up a humdrum pound cake somebody has brought. We offer this recipe in memory of Josie Pattison Winn, of Greenville and New Orleans, who was known as the boiled-custard queen of the Mississippi Delta. Josie was famous for knocking on the front door with this luscious concoction practically before the body was cold. It was, well, to die for. Here's an easy version of our most comforting custard. The little touch of bourbon will help even the most distraught.
1 cup sugar 4 eggs, beaten 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour pinch salt 3 cups scalded milk 1 cup heavy (whipping) cream 2 teaspoons vanilla 1/4 cup bourbon
In the top of a double boiler, combine the sugar, beaten eggs, flour, and salt. Then place the mixture over boiling water and slowly add the milk and cream. Stir constantly until the mixture coats the spoon. Immediately remove the mixture from the heat and add the vanilla and bourbon. Refrigerate. After this is well chilled, it will thicken. Enjoy this as is or serve it in a pitcher to put on a slice of cake or bowl of fruit. Multipurpose and prep time is not long.
Makes about six servings.
Excerpted from Being Dead Is No Excuse by Gayden Metcalfe Charlotte Hays Copyright © 2005 by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays.