"The publisher asked me if I would be interested in doing a book on funeral food because it is a 'trending topic,'" she said. "I said that I could do one on Southern food, but not one for Lutherans in Minnesota or Italians from Brooklyn."
While she mulled it over, she called her mother, also a writer and also named Perre Magness.
"The first thing I did was call my mother, as you do, and when I told her what was going on, she said, 'Oh, you need my obituary file,' " she said.
The elder Magness was part of a wedding committee at her church for many years and kept a file of funny or unusual wedding stories clipped from local newspapers and from papers around the country by friends. When The New York Times started writing about over-the-top weddings, she stopped collecting the stories and picked up another hobby.
"Who knows? Maybe it had something to do with my age, but anyway, I started collecting unusual obituaries," she said. That in 2002 she wrote a book about Elmwood, one of the South's most historic cemeteries, is nothing but coincidence, she said.
When the younger Magness thumbed through the file, she was hooked.
"When I started reading it, I knew that I could write the book and make it entertaining," she said, and it's peppered with excerpts from obituaries found in her mother's file and with stories people told her as she wrote "The Southern Sympathy Cookbook" (Countryman Press; $22.95, release date Jan. 16).
"When I told people the topic, everyone had a story," she said.
For instance, a woman from the church volunteered to bring paper goods to the visitation, as she had a surplus of items. Magness writes:
"What she brought included a big bag of folded paper napkins, printed with the cheerful logo of a regional fast food chain named Jack-in-the-Box. The deceased, unfortunately, was also named Jack."
But it's a cookbook, after all, and Magness offers almost 80 recipes that are standards for the Southern funeral. Fried chicken, she said, is No. 1.
"That's the big thing across the South," she said. "It bridged ages, race, everything. When I'd ask people about funeral food, they'd say fried chicken and then might follow up with 'You know, my grandmother always made such-and-such.' "
One of those standards is the congealed salad.
"I knew right off that I couldn't do a Southern funeral cookbook without Jell-O salad," Magness said, but she did it with a memory and the twist that her recipes don't include Jell-O - they all start with gelatin.
"When my grandmother died, one of the home health care workers brought a bright purple salad, whipped cream, the whole works. We didn't touch it, but then my mother and my aunt told us we had to. They said, 'Everyone has to have a bite because that nice lady made it,' and I have to say, it was delicious."
She professes neither love nor hate for the jiggly salad, but stands by it with a tight defense.
"Every community cookbook you see include maybe dozens of recipes for congealed salads, and they have for years," she said. "It's impossible that generations of women have been making something that no one likes."
There's tomato aspic, of course. Macaroni salad and three-bean salad, chicken salad, casseroles, a homemade chicken spaghetti that's the grown-up, unprocessed version of Rotel spaghetti, plenty of cakes and sweets (there's a Jack and Coke cake, a riff on the Southern Coca-Cola cake) and a few breakfast items, something Magness, 47, says is often overlooked.
"I don't have a particular thing I take to funerals, but often try to take something for breakfast. I've learned from situations in my own family that people sometimes forget about that. You'll have plenty of casseroles but no muffins."
And there's a pimento cheese recipe, though she's already written the book on that. From the headnote on the recipe:
"I asked a food writer friend of mine what her family considered funeral food, and she responded, 'Well, for my big ol' clan of Whiskeypalians, it's got to be something with a little snort in it.' So in her honor, I liquored up pimento cheese." The result is bourbon pimento cheese.
Magness' first book, "Pimento Cheese: The Cookbook," was published in 2014, and her third, "Southern Snacks," will be released this fall. She's the author of the food blog therunawayspoon.com, which she started nine years ago when she had an event planning business.
"I'd started writing a column for (the magazine) At Home Memphis and realized that was the most fun I was having," she said. "So I decided to start the blog, and everything else has come from that."
For her own funeral, she hopes friends and family will bring pimento cheese. And fried chicken. But mostly, that they'll have there what they need.
"Funeral food, at its heart, is the ultimate comfort food," she said. "I think that's why it's a trending topic."
Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com
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