Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeralby Gayden Metcalfe
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Folks in the Delta have a strong sense of community, and being dead is no impediment to belonging to it. Down South, they don't forget you when you've up and died--in fact, they visit you more often. But there are quintessential rules and rituals for kicking the bucket tastefully. Having a flawless funeral is one of them.
In this deliciously entertaining slice of Southern life (and death), inveterate hostess Gayden Metcalfe explains everything you need to know to host an authentic Southern funeral. Can you be properly buried without tomato aspic? Who prepares tastier funeral fare, the Episcopal ladies or the Methodist ladies? And what does one do when a family gets three sheets to the wind and eats the entire feast the night before a funeral?
Each chapter includes a delicious, tried-and-true Southern recipe, critical if you plan to die tastefully any time soon. Pickled Shrimp, Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake, and the ubiquitous Bing Cherry Salad with Coca-Cola are among the many dishes guaranteed to make the next funeral the most satisfying one yet.
Even if you've never been south of Rochester, this book will charm, it will entertain, and it will give you all the ingredients required for the perfect Southern send-off.
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Being Dead Is No ExcuseTHE OFFICIAL SOUTHERN LADIES GUIDE TO HOSTING THE PERFECT FUNERAL
By Gayden Metcalfe Charlotte Hays
HyperionCopyright © 2005 Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDying 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. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
(Jill Conner Browne, author of The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love)
Meet the Author
Gayden Metcalfe is a lifelong Southerner and founder of the Greenville Arts Council. She lives in Greenville, Mississippi, with her husband, Harley Metcalfe III. Charlotte Hays is a Delta native and recovering gossip columnist living in Washington, D.C.
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Forget Scarlet, Zelda, and Tallulah, they pale beside the ladies of the Mississippi Delta who are dedicated, determined, and (pun intended) dead set on seeing the dearly departed off in style. 'Being Dead Is No Excuse' is laugh out loud funny, true, and chock full of recipes for must-be-served dishes at after funeral receptions. Tomato aspic with homemade mayonnaise tops the list that includes Aunt Hebe's Coconut Cake and Virginia's Butterbeans. Those who doubt the import of a table groaning under countless casseroles will learn that 'Nobody eats better than the bereaved Southerner. We celebrate weddings, christenings, birthdays, and just about every milestone in life with food. But every southerner knows that death cooking is our very best.' Now, it's not only the food, but it's also the presentation. For Southern ladies, polishing silver is a form of grief therapy thus the serving pieces will be immaculate. In addition, linens are required. 'We do not want Mildred to go under with paper napkins.' Metcalfe forthrightly addresses the vanity often ascribed to Southern women by describing an older lady who passed away and wanted to be 'laid out' as she looked during the happiest days of her life - when she was a waitress. Thanks to the craftsmanship of the local undertaker she appeared in her coffin in waitress uniform with ruby red lips and the same color hair. Then there is Lavinia, the former wife of a philanderer. Not wishing to be outdone at his services, she made a Botox appointment, bought designer duds, and hired a King Air private jet which she directed to buzz the church. There wasn't anyone with ears who didn't know 'someone' had arrived. Then, Lavinia strode smartly down the aisle stage-whispering, 'I don't want anybody to know I'm here.....I just came for the children.' Greenville, Mississippi native Metcalfe hasn't missed a beat in relating the rollicking rites and rituals necessary for the Southerner's final goodbye, including the frequency of their visits to the local cemetery. 'We won't forget you just because you've up and died,' she writes. 'We may even like you better and visit you more often.' Few will forget 'Being Dead Is No Excuse.' - Gail Cooke
I'm a westerner from Old South stock here to salute the authenticity of this well-written cookbook on a cherished culture. The recipes are right out of my greatgrandmother's kitchen--except these printed ones read more true to the originals, undiminished by generations of substitutions by forgetful minds sharing kitchen staples through oral tradition.
The laughs at ourselves during the worst of times reflect the genteel spirit of the Old South, too. If you aren't Southern in roots, believe every bit of this commentary on the customs surrounding death as more true than you'd dare imagine-- this while you mentally feast on the comfort food within. And if you're Southern? Oh, well. Bless your heart and aren't you lucky to have found this little book! Polish the silver and brace yourself for a good laugh. This is a self-portrait, just chilling in the fridge before serving.
Southern or not, if you enjoy food and/or people-watching, pour yourself a bloody Mary, grab a plateful of cheese straws or lace cookies and settle in for a unique treat. (Location, location, location: I recommend reading this book while draped under a crocheted afghan. It's a short book and an easy read. A gardenia nosegay in your lap will add a dash of local color. You'll finish the book before you can say "crab cakes", so you'll be able to drop the flowers off at the nearest gravestone before they wilt too badly.)
This book is hilarious. In addition to providing all the time-honored and tested recipes that are required for a Southern funeral, this book is quite helpful when explaining the Southern death concept to 'outsiders.' I found it to be a wonderful tool for explaining to my northern and midwestern friends the etiquette of Southern dying.
This one joins Three Guys From Miami Cook Cuban as one of my two favorite FUNNY cookbooks. This may not be a trend, but with so many pseudo-serious chefs eating up the airwaves, it's nice to read a book that doesn't take food so seriously!
I read the chapters of this book pretty quickly. Good stories to which most Southerners can relate. Even better recipes with which most Southerners are familiar and which all other Americans should be.
This book about southern women and funerals is so true. Enjoyable read. Can't wait to try some of the recipes!
I have loved this book for years! It's hysterical, and now I "get" Bless Her Heart. The recipes are good, but if you're in a bad mood, open to any page and just read...you'll be laughin in minutes, and you'll face the world with a smile.
This book is absolutely hilarious. And it contains the recipe for the BEST vodka cake I've ever had. All the recipes look scrumptious (which is actually why I bought it), but the side benefit of the tongue-in-cheek narratives of weddings the author attended was a bonus! You can't go wrong with this one!
I purchased this book for a gift exchange for a reunion of seven friends who became "The Wild and Wonderful Women of Louisville" over 25 years ago. We met at a Newcomers Club meeting in Louisville and kept finding ourselves at the same events. We acted in plays; played canasta for hours without realizing that we had no jokers in the decks because we were laughing until we cried; and, generally, loved every minute of being together. Most of us were not born or raised in the South, but we quickly became Southerns "by choice." This book brought to mind many of our good times and contains many of the recipes that we enjoy today. I am a Southerner and found a reference to "hummingbird tongues on toast" which we say all of the time when someone wants to know what's cooking or what we are going to have for dinner. My father-in-law was the first person I heard use it and had never seen it in print until now. Great laughs and good eats!
I live in Mississippi and I found this to be the best quide for newbees when participating in a funeral event. This book should be kept with your cook books, as all the recipes are "tried and true".
This book is too funny. I laughed thru the whole book. Being from the South myself, I could relate to this story and could put names to most of the people in this story. I even enjoyed the recipes in the book, most of which I already had. This is a great book for a book club.
This is a very funny book despite the title. I remember smiling alot as I could imagine those women discussing things among each other. It contains some great recipes and I love the cupboard staples you need to make an emergency casserole..!! Will be buying this as a gift several times for friends who like to cook and need a relaxing funny read.
I absolutely loved the book! As a Mississippi native, and having lived in the Delta (God's country), I wholeheartedly attest to every word. Do yourself a big, old favor and try one of the recipes - perhaps a grits recipe or pimento cheese. Honey, ya can't go wrong. Enjoy!