Read this cookbook: “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook: Funeral Food With a Twist” by Perre Coleman Magness (Countryman Press, $22.95)
By Wendell Brock
When I die, you have my permission to skip the funeral. But don’t you dare miss the food.
If I have any say in matters (which I won’t!), there’ll be deviled eggs, cheese straws, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, a pot of greens, potato salad, cornbread, biscuits, coconut layer cake, sweet iced tea, lemonade and bourbon.
The good news is, I won’t have to cook.
If you understand anything about life and death in the American South, you know there’s no finer eating, no greater comfort, than funeral food. A death is nothing but an excuse for a big old party, if you ask me.
Memphis native Perre Coleman Magness (“Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook”) knows from funeral food—the celestial casseroles, jubilant jello molds and heavenly hams that are part and parcel to the region’s tradition of feeding the bereaved.
In this delightful volume, she shares more than 75 recipes and sprinkles them with amusing anecdotes, obituary snippets, literary quotations and a couple of personal essays (on congealed salads and her own country-ham memories and research).
Thankfully, there’s nary a mention of canned condensed soup or cocktail weenies in “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook.” On the other hand, it may prompt you to polish the silver, iron the linens and hunt up grandmother’s beloved aspic server.
Though I might like to hear a little bit more about Magness and her family in these pages, I love her humor, her fondness for bourbon, her recipe-development skills and her knowledge of this specific genre of food, which is what Southern folk serve at all manner of social gatherings, be they condolatory or convivial.
To its credit, this is not a community-cookbook-style affair of gathered recipes but a deliciously personalized, highly genteel, slightly updated compendium of everything from deviled ham and pickled shrimp to coffee cake and banana pudding, all made from everyday, grocery-store ingredients.
There are a couple of Southern treasures here I’d almost forgotten and can’t wait to re-visit: That Pineapple Thing (a sweet-savory bake of canned pineapple and grated cheddar topped with buttery Ritz crackers) and Party Potatoes (a spud-palooza concocted from frozen hash browns, bacon, cheddar, chives and whatnot).
Among the many one-dish meals suggested here are a casserole riff on the classic hot brown sandwich and a from-scratch adaptation of Ro-Tel chicken spaghetti, made with fresh poblanos and plum tomatoes instead of the usual festival of canned ingredients.
I also dig the sound of Southern Sweet Potato Crumb Cake, Peaches and Cream Coffee Cake, Jack and Coke Sheet Cake, and so many of the hassle-free desserts in this book.
Though I have enjoyed Saltine Toffee over the years, I’d never bothered to make it until I encountered Magness’ version. Gussied up with vanilla extract, chopped pecans and sea salt, it’s highly addictive.
As for the bourbon, well, Magness puts it in her brown-butter pecan pie, her toasted pecans, even her pimento cheese!
I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, but when I do — O Lord, when I do! – I sure hope the “mourners” will send me off in the spirit of “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook.”
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).