Nobody in the world eats better than the bereaved Southerner.
Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral is as fabulous as Josie Pattison Winn’s Bourbon Boiled Custard recipe, fit to warm the soul even as the corpse is growing cold. Put simply, this is not your average cookbook.
Besides providing the quintessential recipes that every Southern woman must have in her recipe box, Being Dead is No Excuse tells her how to keep her pantry, as death almost always comes unannounced, and packs a punch with its do-or-die funeral and mourning etiquette, complete with oodles of saporous anecdotes. Its recipes for delectable, signature “death dishes,” ranging from savory mousses, both in the shrimp and ham varieties, to bound-to-put-you-in-the-casket-soon casseroles laden with enough cheese and sour cream to feed the whole town, to the sweet varietals, such as Vodka Cake full of kahlúa, are bound to please a wide range of palettes.
What I most enjoyed about this book, authored by experts Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, is the way it offers a lens into how Southern women remain at the heart of every funeral. The relationship between women and death is always strong, but Ms. Metcalfe and Ms. Hays make a compelling case that it is perhaps strongest in the American South, specifically, in the Mississippi Delta.
Following a Delta funeral is a midday (lunch) or afternoon (dinner) funeral reception. There are a few dishes that must be on the sideboard during every reception, and the first and foremost is Tomato Aspic. Stuffed Eggs, Pimiento Cheese, Coconut Cake, and Butterbeans all compete for the second and third place signature death dishes, with Stuffed Eggs being the primary way of enhancing a Ham Mousse display.
I’m showing my complete Yankee ignorance by admitting that I had never heard of aspic – a gelatinous, bright red dish – before reading this cookbook:
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.
Serve Tomato Aspic with pickled shrimp – they’re practically naked without it and even slightly offensive. This is a funeral, after all, Metcalfe and Hays emphasize, not a cocktail party.
That said, no one is saying a Southerner can’t enjoy herself at a funeral reception. Alcohol, at least for the Episcopalians, is a natural part of the festivities:
Getting slightly pickled yourself is not frowned upon. It is also a good time to reminisce about the person who has died and to celebrate life.
The toddy, what these Southern ladies call any alcoholic beverage, is an important part of the reception; a little liquor allows everyone to loosen up a bit. Methodists, on the other hand, prefer to soothe their grief with Mint or Almond Teas, which Metcalfe and Hay refer to as the ‘Methodist Chardonnay.’
The Handmaidens of the Bereaved
Funerals offer little time for preparation as death is often unpredictable, and even when it’s expected, there’s always a lot to do. This leaves family members, namely, the women of the house, scrambling to prepare everything from choosing the casket to prepping every death dish for the funeral reception. Thankfully, these Southern ladies get by with a little help from their friends.
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.
Like a matron of honor and accompanying bridesmaids, close female friends step into help during a lady’s time of need. The best example of this death sisterhood is perhaps seen in the exemplar maiden Sue Ellen Potts. She acquired the reputation of being the go-to lady for stepping in to help prepare for an elaborate funeral feast, and acquired the nickname ‘the Handmaiden of the Bereaved’ because she could always be counted on to call the shots (or at least try to) following a death in a woman’s family.
Even ladies who are not close to the recently bereaved do their part in contributing to the funeral feast. They leave dishes of food in the kitchens of the grieving even if they might not know them well enough to attend the service.
“Whenever somebody dies in the Delta,” said Eleanor Vicks, “you just automatically take stuffed eggs and a bottle of wine. Unless you’re Methodist, and then you just take the eggs.”
Throughout history, preparing food and preparing the body for burial have roles traditionally been associated with the lady of any household. While many women are no longer preparing the bodies of their loved ones for burial, they might still be tasked with making sure they have enough food and beds to go around for their out of town guests as well as friends and acquaintances who might show up to the funeral reception. Women show their solidarity to grieving sisters by helping to carry on the tradition of preparing recipes that have been quintessential funeral foods for generations.
Preserving Culture & the Culture of Mourning
The support Southern women offer one another during a time of grief also extends far beyond food preparation and into ensuring that the proper cult of mourning is preserved:
If your family is prone to fall in the bottle at times of trial (and even if they aren’t), it is recommended that you appoint somebody bossy to run the kitchen. She’s most often the best friend of the lady of the house, and her word is law. You must be afraid to cross her. She will list the casseroles and aspics as they arrive, and she also will keep track of the dishes and return them to their owners within a few days of the funeral.
Because funerals in the Mississippi Delta are nothing sort of rituals, it is important they are conducted properly so that the following generation will continue to carry out the right traditions. And, in addition to that, with all of those amazing death dishes, funeral receptions attract Southerners like flies to honey, which has made them microcosms of society. Especially for older women, they serve as important cultural events:
I’d never see anybody if I didn’t go to funerals,” old Mrs. Eustis chirped. “Did you have a good time?”
The Heart of a Perfect Southern Funeral
A funeral done right in the Mississippi Delta requires an impressive repertoire of death cuisine – and the right death cuisine at that. Marshmallows in congealed salads are only proper if you’re Baptist; bourbon is a hit or miss at Methodist receptions; and the Episcopalians, rebelling against their dry county history, can be counted on to fill your glass with a toddy. At the core of all of these sometimes atypical, sometimes extravagant, and always time-consuming food preparations are the ladies, culling their restorative powers from the hearth, just as their mothers and grandmothers did before them, to soothe the stomachs and souls of the grieving and properly mourn the dead.
For all of the recipes mentioned in this post, see Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. All quotes featured in this post can also be found in the book.