Recipes excerpted from "Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral" with permission from Miramax Books.

The Ladies of St. James' Cheese Straws | Mason-Dixon Curried Chicken Salad | The Methodist Ladies' Chicken Lasagna Florentine | Poulet John Wesley | Methodist Party Potatoes | Vegetable Casserole | Mint and Almond Teas

The Ladies of St. James' Cheese Straws

Cheese straws have been served at every known occasion. Nothing compares with home-baked cheese straws. Cheese straws baked at home are to store-bought ones as fresh asparagus is to canned asparagus.

Delta cooks are incredibly protective of their recipes; nowhere is this more apparent than with cheese straws. One matron insisted we come to her house for a private lesson before she'd share her late mother-in-law's recipe.

Most cheese-straw recipes are pretty similar. The success depends on the cook's technique. Fortunately, proper technique is not that difficult; it rests on scrupulosity with regard to two basic rules: Always melt your butter before adding, and watch how you add the flour. Don't put it all in at once. Put it in slowly. Don't knead the dough, work it lightly with your hands-just enough to blend. Purists may omit the Worcestershire and Tabasco.

4 cups all-purpose flour, measure before sifting
2 scant teaspoons salt
1 1/2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
approximately 4 sticks salted butter, melted
4 (10-ounce) packages of extra-sharp cheese, finely shredded
5 dashes Tabasco
5 dashes Worcestershire (Lea & Perrins)

Sift the flour, salt, and cayenne together. Work the melted butter into the shredded cheese (with your hands!). Note, the recipe reads 4 sticks of butter, approximately. Use the amount of melted butter to produce a consistency appropriate to your cookie press. Incorporate the flour mixture a little at a time (still using your hands). Add the Tabasco and Worcestershire to taste. Fill the tube of the cookie press. Using the ribbon disk produces a real bite, while the smaller disc produces the familiar squiggle.

Bake at 350° for approximately 12 minutes, or until firm to the touch and slightly brown around the edges. Squiggles take only about 10 minutes.

Makes about ten dozen.

Mason-Dixon Curried Chicken Salad

You don't want the table to be monochromatic. There are about a thousand chicken salad recipes floating around the Delta. Not only is this one delicious, but because of the curry, it also adds a certain color to the table. Our curry powder south of the Mason-Dixon tends to be generic and weak, but it still adds a delightful zing. Three tablespoons of it is fine. However, 1 1/2 of the real thing is quite sufficient. Remember, the taste amplifies as it chills.

4 to 5 pounds chicken breasts (dark meat is a no-no in chicken salad)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 1/2 cups homemade mayonnaise
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 lemon
1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons curry powder
1 (10-ounce) package slivered almonds
2 cups sliced celery
2 (5-ounce) cans sliced water chestnuts, drained and rinsed
White seedless grapes, optional

Preheat oven to 350°.

Wipe the chicken breasts with butter, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and place in a shallow pan. Bake for approximately 1 hour. Cool and cube the chicken. Mix the mayonnaise, soy sauce, lemon juice (a nice squeeze of fresh lemon), salt, and pepper. Start by adding 11/2 tablespoons curry powder-gradually add more as you go.

Using a baking sheet, spread the almonds in a single layer, coat with butter, and toast until golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Add the mayonnaise mixture, water chestnuts, sliced grapes, and toasted almonds to cubed chicken. Correct seasoning and chill well.

Serves ten.

The Methodist Ladies' Chicken Lasagna Florentine

For once, we're at a loss for words. Pecans and lasagna? But this is the quintessential Methodist death dish, and it's so good it'll kill you.

6 lasagna noodles, uncooked
1 (10-ounce) package chopped frozen spinach, thawed
2 cups cooked, chopped chicken (about 3 medium breasts)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons white pepper
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 can (10 3/4-ounces) cream of mushroom soup
1 (8-ounce) carton sour cream
1/3 cup homemade mayonnaise
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or to taste)
Butter Pecan Topping (see below)

Preheat oven to 350°.

Cook the noodles according to package directions, drain and set aside. Drain the spinach well, pressing between layers of paper towels. Combine the spinach, chicken, cheddar cheese, onion, nutmeg, salt, pepper, soy sauce, soup, sour cream, and mayonnaise in a large bowl; stir well to blend.

Arrange half the lasagna noodles in a lightly greased 11 x 7 x 1 1/2-inch baking dish. Spread half the chicken mixture over the noodles. Repeat this procedure with the remaining chicken mixture and noodles. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and Butter Pecan Topping. Bake, covered, for 55 to 60 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. Let stand for 15 minutes before cutting.

Serves eight.

Butter Pecan Topping

2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup chopped pecans

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat; add the pecans and cook for 3 minutes. Cool completely.

The Ladies of St. James' Cheese Straws | Mason-Dixon Curried Chicken Salad | The Methodist Ladies' Chicken Lasagna Florentine | Poulet John Wesley | Methodist Party Potatoes | Vegetable Casserole | Mint and Almond Teas

Poulet John Wesley

Everyone loves fried chicken-it's the ecumenical dish. One of the reasons it's so good for funerals is that it can sit on the sideboard for hours and still be delicious.

1 chicken, cut up.a nice, medium-size yard bird
2 eggs
2 cups whole milk
2 cups flour salt black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
fat for frying (Crisco, vegetable oil, or a combination. Crisco is a nice way of saying "lard.")

Lightly beat the eggs and blend with the milk. Combine the flour, salt, pepper (a generous amount), and baking powder in a doubled brown grocery bag.shake to mix. Dip each piece of chicken in the egg/milk mixture. Shake chicken, one piece at a time, in the bag of flour until well coated (at this point, some cooks prefer the double-dip method where they repeat the egg-wash-and-flour procedure).

Using a preseasoned black-iron skillet, heat enough oil to almost cover the chicken. When you drop the chicken in, the fat sizzles! Frying is an art. The real art involves the grease, which must not burn but cook at an even, medium-hot level. Cooking time will vary according to the size of the piece of chicken. Approximately 20 minutes.

Serves three to four.

NOTE: Do not crowd the chicken when frying. Turn only once, when golden brown on one side. Remove pieces from the skillet and drain them on a brown grocery bag that has been covered with a layer of paper towels.soaks up extra grease better than anything!

Methodist Party Potatoes

Party Potatoes might sound a bit jolly for a funeral, but no self-respecting Delta Methodist is buried without them. Note to purists: If you refuse to cook with corn flakes, skip this recipe.

1 2-pound package hash browns
10 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup chopped onions
1 pint sour cream
1 can (10 3/4-ounces) cheddar cheese soup, not diluted
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pepper, coarsely ground

2 cups corn flakes
1 stick butter

Preheat oven to 350°.

Prepare the hash browns according to the package directions. Combine the cooked hash browns with the other ingredients and place in a buttered 13 x 9-inch casserole dish. Top the casserole with corn flakes and dot with butter. Bake 40 minutes, or until golden, crisp, and bubbly. After you've eaten your fill, ask your doctor to add Lipitor.

Serves eight.

Vegetable Casserole

You can tell a Methodist recipe because it almost always has a step that reads, "Blend sour cream and cheese." This is standard at the church lunch. While it might sound awful to the uninitiated, it's the apotheosis of food to die for.

1 can (14 1/2-ounces) French-cut green beans
1 can (15 1/4-ounces) shoe-peg corn
1 can (8-ounces) sliced water chestnuts
black pepper
1 can (10 3/4-ounces) cream of celery soup
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 stick Oleo
1 roll (35) Ritz crackers
1/2 cup slivered almonds

Preheat oven to 350°.

Drain the beans, corn, and water chestnuts. Mix in a greased 9 x 13inch pan (2 quarts). Add salt and lots of black pepper. Mix the soup, sour cream, onions, and cheese. Spread over bean and corn mixture.

Melt the Oleo and mix with crushed Ritz crackers. Spread over the top of the above mixture. Sprinkle the almonds on top. Bake for 45 minutes.

Serves eight.

NOTE: We use whole-wheat crackers-37 to a roll-and no-fat sour cream.

Mint and Almond Teas

Think of these teas as Methodist chardonnay. Methodists rarely drown their grief in anything stronger than flavored tea. Mint tea and almond tea are refreshing in the Delta summer and won't cause you to say things you regret later. The mint tea is a legacy of a long-gone local minister. (No doubt some rector of St. James' has passed down his favorite highball recipe.)

Almond Tea Ingredients
4 cups strongly brewed tea
3/4 cup water
1 can (60-ounce) frozen lemonade, thawed
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract (a little goes a long way)

Combine all ingredients. Stir it until the sugar is dissolved, and serve over ice.

Makes about twelve cups.
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