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Southern funerals and food go hand-in-hand

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
Nov. 6, 2002
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of New South Restaurant Group, www.nsrg.com. His weekly food column appears in various newspapers throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. If you have any questions or comments, he can be reached at robert@nsrg.com or (601) 264-0672.   
Funerals are observed in many different ways.
Military funerals embrace the playing of taps and the firing of rifles. In New Orleans, an old-fashioned jazz funeral becomes a festive Mardi Gras parade once the body has been buried.
In the movies, Irish mourners hold a wake and get knee-walking drunk while singing "Danny Boy" (the Italians go for red wine and "Ave Maria").
In the South, we eat.
Down here, our response to a death is so Pavlovian that, as soon as a death is mentioned, our first thought is "who is going to make the potato salad?"  
Before we think of the grieving widow or the loss of a friend, we are wondering if anyone else is going to bring deviled eggs. In the South, a wake means fried chicken, egg salad and cream of mushroom soup-filled casseroles.
Southern ladies band together after a death. It is an amazing thing to see. Out of instinct, love, tradition, honor and a desire to bake, they rally around the cause to take care of their own and feed the masses.
The food at these events is plentiful. Not only does the bereaved family have to shop for a casket, they must also go to the appliance store and buy a new freezer to hold the massive quantities of green-bean casserole, corn pudding, chicken salad, yeast rolls, brownies and coconut cakes that have been delivered to the doorstep.
My hometown of Hattiesburg used to have a drive-through funeral home. No kidding. The funeral home was open and running in the late 1970s. There was a huge horizontal plate-glass window on the side of the building. The funeral home would place a casket in the window and mourners would hop in their cars and drive alongside the building to view the body.
The drive-through funeral home eventually closed, probably because there was no food available. Realizing they were located in the Deep South, they should have put a service window in the other side of the building and handed mourners squash casserole and vegetable crudit with a side of fries and a large Coke on their way to see poor old Uncle Harry. "Doesn't he look natural, James. I feel sorry for Helen and the kids. Please pass the asparagus and slow this car down."
My grandmother brought elaborate dishes to the homes of the bereaved. She went to work as soon as she heard of a death in the community. A favorite dish my grandmother prepared on such occasions was bridal pudding. I'll never know why she took a wedding dessert to a funeral, but it obviously worked. People still talk about it.
The dish was delivered to the house in three parts to be composed later. That is a lot of work for both parties. Times were different then. Grandmothers were different then. My grandmother was different, too.
She was one of the most gracious and socially adept people I have ever known. Her visits to the hospital to comfort sick friends took a half a day. This is the same lady who, at 87 years old, had a heart attack but drove herself to the beauty parlor to have her hair done before driving herself to the emergency room.
In the South, death and food are synonymous. Down here, communities band together during times of tragedy. Food is the common vein that runs through it all. However, my generation doesn't seem to come together like the generations before us. Are we so busy that we have forgotten the importance of community, friends and family?
As a child, I attended my share of funerals. There was always a mountain of food available. Those early funerals probably played a big part in my love for Southern food (and also in my girth). A lot of my friends are chefs and restaurateurs. If you want some good food, come over to my house when I kick the bucket. But don't hold your breath.
Mothers make us go to funerals. Wives make us go to weddings. Dads take us to football games. In the South, we eat at all three.
Bridal Pudding
2 envelopes gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
1/3 cup boiling water
6 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
11/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flaked coconut
Soften gelatin in cold water. Pour in boiling water and stir to dissolve. Beat whites stiff, add salt and gradually beat in sugar. Fold gelatin into whites. Whip cream stiff and add vanilla. Fold cream into whites (don't stir). Rub bottom and sides of spring form pan (or glass bowl) with butter. Sprinkle bottom of bowl with 1/2 cup coconut and pour in cream mixture. Top with remaining coconut and chill four hours or overnight. Unmold and serve with custard sauce and sweetened strawberries.
Custard Sauce
6 egg yolks, beat lemon
1/2 cup sugar, add gradually along with 1/8 teaspoon salt
Scald and stir in three cups milk. Cook in a double boiler stirring constantly DO NOT BOIL until thickens. Strain and cool. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and almond. Chill thoroughly. Beat sauce with egg beater.