There’s no two ways about it: funerals can suck. The loss of a loved one is never easy, and the fact that so many different things have to happen in the week or so after the death doesn’t make things any easier. The family not only needs to figure out all of the logistics of a funeral and a burial, but also has to tie up loose ends and make all of the necessary calls. While all of this is going on, the people in question still have to eat— a task that, when buried under a mountain of grief and paperwork, may easily be forgotten about. That is where —in most communities, but especially in the South — friends and extended family come in.
When the grieving attend to logistics, the myriad aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends take it upon themselves to make food for the family. These meals are meant to comfort and provide solace in a rough time … the dishes aren’t necessarily the healthiest, but they certainly are the most delicious. If you grew up in a Southern family, these recipes may come as second nature. You know how to make sweet tea bread and sausage balls already. If you didn’t, you should take a look at Perre Coleman Magness’ new book, The Southern Sympathy Cookbook (Countryman Press, 2018).
In the book, Magness says that funeral foods are a necessity. “Nothing motivates one to get in the kitchen more than a funeral,” she writes in the introduction. “We all seem to harbor the primordial need to comfort with food.”
It’s this mindset that informs the recipes. If you needed comfort after a loss, you’d want these foods. If a friend or family member loses someone, these are the things you need to make. The book is broken into six parts covering breakfast and breads (“The Great Awakening”), starters and snacks (“The Pearly Gates”), fruits and veggies (“The Eternal Garden”), chicken (“The Gospel Bird”), meat (“Growing Glory”), and desserts (“The Sweet Hereafter”). Each section contains a variety of recipes fit for any number of circumstances.
Not only does the book offer recipes for delicious and easy-to-make meals, it also provides great education in Southern cuisine along the way, such as this explanation of the different kinds of ham, found on page 115:
“City ham: We distinguish in the South. City ham is your standard Easter ham, wet-cured or brined, then smoked and sold fully cooked, it just needs to be warmed through, though a glaze is certainly worth it.
Country ham: The most glorious of the Southern meats, country hams are dry-cured with salt and sugar, hung, and aged for months or years. Some are smoked, as well. A whole country ham needs to be soaked and boiled before serving, though many smokehouses sell ready-to-eat center-cut slices or small pieces cut biscuit-sized.”
(More on ham soon).
You can’t overlook the fact that Magness includes obituaries, which are full of Southern charm and wit. Take this obit from Memphis, Tennessee on page 27:
“[Her first] marriage … was a three-ring circus: engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffering … ‘I never knew what happiness was until I remarried, and by then it was too late’ … [She] slipped away and joined her daughter in heaven. Fortunately, [her husband] preceded her and joined his mother in a much warmer climate.”
What you realize while reading is that this cookbook is more than just a collection of foods to make for those that have experienced one of the worst things to ever happen to a person. It is a repository for Southern culture — a peek at how a section of society grieves and how others in that same society help with that process. It doesn’t matter if you’re prepping for Great Aunt Sally’s imminent demise or not, The Southern Sympathy Cookbook is a great read and an easy-to-follow cookbook that provides delicious Southern dishes.
Who would we be if we didn’t share at least one of our favorites? One of the most iconic dishes that can be served to a large group of people is a baked ham. With this recipe, Magness glazes the ham in sweet tea. It literally could not get better than that (unless you through a shot of bourbon in the sweet tea, of course).
Baked Ham with Sweet Tea Glaze
“I always look for a bone-in, fully cooked, not sliced, smoked city ham with no water added. Sliced hams tend to dry out when being reheated and water-added hams can have a spongy texture. And a ham bone is a great thing to have around for cooking greens or making soup. Sometimes I order online from wonderful Southern smokehouses or go to a local meat market,” says Magness.
- 1 (7- to 8-pound) bone-in half ham, unsliced
- 1.5 cups water
- .75 cups light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp cider vinegar
- 4 sprigs fresh mint
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 black tea bags
Method for the glaze:
- Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan with a lid.
- Peel the garlic cloves and crush with the flat side of a knife.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add the tea bags, garlic cloves, and mint. Cover the pan and leave to steep for 30 minutes.
- Fish out the tea bags, garlic, and mint, then add the brown sugar and vinegar and return to a medium-high heat. Cook the glaze, stirring frequently, until it has reduced by a little more than half and is thick and syrupy, about 20 minutes.
- Keep the glaze warm over low heat.
Method for the ham:
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place the ham on the rack of a roasting pan (I use the one that came with my oven). Use a sharp knife to score a diamond pattern in the top of the ham, about 1 inch deep and ¼ inch apart.
- Pour 2 cups of water into the bottom of the roasting pan, then bake the ham for 2½ to 3 hours, about 20 minutes per pound, until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the ham reaches 130ºF. I like to insert a probe thermometer with an alarm, so I can get on about my business until the alarm sounds.
- Brush the top and sides of the ham with half the glaze and bake for a further 20 minutes, then finish with the remaining glaze and another 10 minutes in the oven.
- Remove the ham to a large cutting board and cover loosely with foil. The ham can be sliced and served warm, or left to cool then refrigerated, covered, for up to three days.
You can buy The Southern Sympathy Cookbook here.