One of several birthday gifts I received from my lovely daughter was a very entertaining book: Being Dead Is No Excuse, by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays. I read it cover to cover last night and chuckled all the way through.
Subtitled The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, the book gives you a look at the rituals and food surrounding a Southern funeral: the appropriate flowers, the proper language in the obituary (glossing over the not-so-nice things the deceased did during his/her lifetime), and making sure you spend eternity among your relatives in the family graveyard after being glowingly eulogized at a well-attended funeral.
The stories are hilarious. One dowager wanted to be laid out on her dining-room table; one minister fell head-first into the grave; one family got three sheets to the wind and ate the entire feast the night before the funeral. And although old Mrs. Gilbertson's daughter hacked her to death with a pair of garden shears, relatives threw her a lovely funeral.
Southern women are very serious about the preparation of their special dishes to take to the bereaved family. (Sometimes they start preparing their dishes before the poor person has died.) Aside from the tongue-in-cheek humor, which the authors swear is more truth than fiction, there are delicious Southern dishes that must be served.
"The deceased cannot be expected to leave this earth," says Metcalfe, "without that Southern comfort food!"
Each chapter includes delicious recipes, many of which are found at funeral receptions in the Mississippi Delta. They include tomato aspic (with homemade mayonnaise), fried chicken, butter beans (with crumpled bacon on top), tomato pie, pimiento cheese (the paste that holds the South together, say the authors), fried walnuts, Liketa Died Potatoes, pickled figs, Can't-Die-Without-It Caramel Cake, Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake.
And those are only a few of the recipes. (I can't wait to make fried walnuts, hot pimiento cheese with bacon, and those Liketa Died Potatoes!)
The food is divided up by religion. Methodists are known for their casseroles with the cook's name taped to the bottom of the Pyrex dish. "Nothing whispers sympathy quite like a frozen-pea casserole," Metcalfe says, "And the Baptists have tiny marshmallows in their salads. The Episcopalians? "We spend our lives making cheese straws."
Some of the names in the book have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty, although Metcalfe and Hays agree it would take townsfolk "about two seconds" to figure out who's who. "If you make a beautiful coconut cake, we used your name," Metcalfe says. "But if you hacked your mother to death, we changed the name."
Southern women always want to look their best, even if they happen to be dead. "Bubba" Boone is the local undertaker, who, Metcalfe says, "could make you look better than a plastic surgeon, though, unfortunately, you do have to be dead to avail yourself of his ministrations."
Bubba did such a good job on Sue Dell Potter, a waitress over at Jim's Cafe, one matron couldn't believe it when she went to call. "Never in a million years would I have thought it was her, bless her heart."
As for the cemetery, some Greenville women already have their names etched in stone, just to assure their place. And your place within the cemetery is important. One "uppity" Greenville matron had boxwood planted around her grave to block out the neighbors. And each time one Greenville native, who now lives in New York, returns home, she goes to her plot and stretches out, to ensure that nobody has encroached. (Her big fear is ending up in the new part of the cemetery where, she says, she doesn't know a soul.)
If you want a lot of laughs and some wonderful Southern recipes, I think you will enjoy this book.
All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley