Good mourning: in appreciation of soulful, Southern funeral food

In times of grief, thoughts and prayers are comforting. So is sweet tea bread.

Glazed, lemony and looking so pretty on a platter, how can it not bring warmth to a bereaved family’s heart? 

This is a story about funerals, but I promise it won’t be sad. There are enough carbs involved to soak up the tears. That’s because it’s a story about Southern funeral food. It would be sad only if it didn’t include heavenly visions of sweet potato crumb cake. 

Sympathy food is sublime. But it doesn’t have to be fancy, just heartfelt and soothing – and in the South, plentiful. 

“Funerals in the South are synonymous with food,” writes author Perre Coleman Magness in her newly released book, “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook” (The Countryman Press, $22.95). “We often express our emotions and process our grief through the act of nourishing our neighbors.” 

A Memphis event planner, Magness knows her Southern-comfort grub well – four years ago, she wrote an entire book about pimento cheese. In “Southern Sympathy,” she presents more than 160 pages of guilty-pleasure recipes for dishes that include gooey butter cake, ambrosia with rosemary and honey syrup, deviled ham, hot brown casserole and Jack and Coke sheet cake. 

The author sprinkles in a few literary quotations and excerpts from classic Southern obituaries. They rise off the page as if powered by the yeast in Magness’ Angel Biscuits. 

“He loved Southern food smothered in cane syrup… he hated vegetables and hypocrites,” goes the obit of a particular ladies’ man from Bloomingdale, Georgia. “He got married when he was 18, but it didn’t last. [He] was no quitter, however, so he gave it a shot two more times.” 

Then there was the poor woman from Galveston, Texas, whose obit revealed what appears to be a life of solitude and severity: 

“She had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life… Her presence will not be missed by many. Very few tears will be shed.” 

It’s doubtful that anyone baked and Saran-wrapped a loaf of buttermilk banana bread in her memory. Then again, as the author points out, one does not have to wait for a funeral to whip up some comforting, restorative grub. 

Southern chef Virginia Willis, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, agrees that Magness’ recipes are “delectable and delightful” enough to celebrate life, not simply soothe the mourning. The recipes are, she writes on the book’s jacket, “well, to die for.”  


The following recipes and author’s notes are reprinted from Perre Coleman Magness’ 2018 book “The Southern Sympathy Cookbook: Funeral Food with a Twist” with permission of its publisher, Countryman Press.  

Sweet Tea Bread 

“Sweet Tea is so ubiquitous and all-encompassing in the South, we use it in just about any way we can. This light, delicately flavored quick bread is perfect for breakfast or an afternoon gathering, packaged up nicely with a ribbon or sliced on a silver platter.” – Perre Coleman Magness 

Makes 1 loaf 


1 family-sized tea bag 

2 sprigs mint, plus 1 tablespoon finely chopped mint 

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature 

¾ cup granulated sugar 

Zest of one medium lemon 

2 large eggs 

1½ cups all-purpose flour 

½ teaspoon baking powder 

½ teaspoon salt 

¾ cup confectioners' sugar 

Make the bread: 

  1. Put the tea bag and 2 sprigs of mint in a measuring cup. Add 1 cup boiling water. Steep for 30 minutes, then remove the tea bag and mint. Cool to room temperature. 
  2. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Spray a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with baking spray. 
  3. Beat the butter and sugar together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Beat in the lemon zest and 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh mint. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl. 
  4. Measure out ½ cup of the tea, reserving the rest for the glaze. Add the flour, baking powder and salt to the butter in the bowl in three additions, alternating with the tea and scraping down the sides of the bowl. When everything is well combined, beat on high for 5 seconds, then scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth into an even layer. 
  5. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze. 
  6. Sift the confectioners’ sugar into a small bowl. Whisk in the remaining tea slowly, until you have a pourable glaze about the consistency of heavy cream. Drizzle the glaze over the cake with a spoon, spreading to cover the top with a few attractive drips down the sides. Let the glaze set for about an hour. 

The loaf will keep in an airtight container for a day. 

Jambalaya Casserole 

“This Louisiana inspired chicken and rice casserole adds a little jazz to the standard casserole list. I love having the flavors of jambalaya in a make-ahead, buffet-friendly version.” – Perre Coleman Magness 

Serves 8 

For the Creole Seasoning: 

1 tablespoon kosher salt 

1 tablespoon sweet paprika 

1 tablespoon garlic powder 

1 tablespoon ground black pepper 

1½ teaspoons ground thyme 

1 teaspoon onion powder 

¾ teaspoon ground oregano 

For the Casserole: 

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts 

12 ounces bacon 

1 medium yellow onion 

1 green bell pepper 

1 celery stalk 

1 pound andouille sausage 

1 tablespoon tomato paste 

1 (14½-ounce) can petite cut diced tomatoes 

2 bay leaves 

1½ cups white wine 

3 cups chicken broth 

1 cup long grain white rice 

2 (15-ounce) cans red beans, rinsed and drained 

½ cup dry breadcrumbs 

Make the Creole Seasoning: 

  • Place all the ingredients in a small jar and shake well to combine. 

Make the Casserole: 

  1. Cut the chicken breasts into small bite-sized pieces (I like to use scissors), place them on a plate and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the creole seasoning. Leave chicken to sit while you get on with things. 
  2. Cut the bacon into small pieces (again, scissors are handy) and place in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook until the bacon is crispy, then remove it to a plate or bowl lined with paper towels to drain. While the bacon is cooking, finely dice the onion, bell pepper, and celery. Cut the sausage in half lengthwise, then into pieces about as thick as a nickel. 
  3. When you remove the bacon from the pot, drop in the chicken pieces and cook for a few minutes until just sealed and lightly browned. Remove the chicken back to the plate with a slotted spoon. Drop the sausage into the pan and cook until it is browning, getting crispy, and beginning to curl up. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels. Drain away all but ¼ cup of the fat. Add the diced onion, pepper, and celery to the remaining fat, sprinkle over another tablespoon of creole seasoning, then sauté over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste, tomatoes, and bay leaves and continue cooking for another 2 minutes. Pour in the wine and broth and stir, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring the sauce to simmer, then return the chicken to the pot. 
  4. Stir in the sausage and rice to combine well and bring back to a low bubble. Cover the pot and cook for 15 minutes, stirring, until the rice is tender and some of the liquid has been absorbed. Bring back to a simmer and drop in the beans and the cooked bacon and stir. Remove the bay leaves and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave to cool. At this point, the mixture will be a little soupy, but the liquid will be absorbed as it rests. Spoon the casserole into a 9-by-13-inch pan. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the casserole. 
  5. The casserole will keep wrapped tightly up to 2 days in the fridge. 
  6. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Place the dish on a baking sheet and cook for 15 minutes until heated through. 

Saltine Toffee 

“This is an oldie but goodie – a stalwart community cookbook recipe and classic food gift. And there is a reason for that. It is sweet and salty and crunchy and easy to make, and incredibly comforting. I’m not reinventing the wheel here, just bumping up the classic with a little vanilla and a sprinkle of salt.” – Perre Coleman Magness 

Makes: About 100 pieces


About 50 saltine crackers 

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter 

1 cup dark brown sugar 

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips 

1 cup finely chopped pecans (optional) 

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon (optional) 

To make: 

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a 12-by-18-inch rimmed backing sheet with nonstick foil or parchment paper. Lay the crackers out in one layer as close together as possible, filling the sheet. 
  2. Melt butter and brown sugar in a medium sauce pan over medium heat, stirring frequently. When the butter has melted, raise the heat and bring to a boil. Keep it at a boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. After 3 minutes, add the vanilla extract, give it a good stir, and pour evenly over crackers. Spread the caramel around with a spatula if needed. Don’t worry if the surface isn’t completely covered. You just don’t want it pooling in one place. 
  3. Bake the crackers for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the top in an even layer. Let sit for 5 minutes; then spread the chocolate evenly over the crackers. Sprinkle pecans and/or sea salt (if using) over the top. 
  4. Leave to cool, then place in refrigerator for about an hour to set chocolate. Break into pieces and store in an airtight container for up to five days.

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