Rick Bragg is no cook, but that doesn’t matter a bit when he writes his mother’s recipes. In his new book, The Best Cook In The World, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author is plenty of other things: a leisurely, soulful storyteller, a reporter with a poet’s eye, and an appreciative diner. Most of all – here, as with earlier family memoirs – he’s a ferociously devoted son.
Some would say Bragg grew up dirt poor, but food provides a clearer measurement of class where he was raised in the rural South. Markers include poke salad, the foraged green that Bragg says identifies status “like a brand,” as the toxic leaves require such effort to eat safely. “People with money would never fool with it in the first place; they would never take the time.” Even a feast of Southern fried chicken takes on a different cast when it includes killing and plucking the bird – and feeling the good fortune of having that bird to kill.
The book includes 75 recipes, which read like oral tradition even though they’re written down (one ingredient list includes both lard and luck.) The stories surrounding each meal are just as rich.
The title refers to Bragg’s mother, Margaret, although she disagreed with his assessment of her skills. He describes the debate with typical flair: “I wasn’t even the best cook that lived on our road,” she said. “Your aunt Edna was a fine cook. Our momma was a fine cook.” I told her we couldn’t call it 'The Third-Best Cook on the Roy Webb Road,' because that just didn’t sing.”
Bragg is determined to save Margaret’s recipes as she ages, knowing that “Every time the old woman stepped from her workshop of steel spoons, iron skillets, and blackened pots, all she knew about the food left with her, in the way, when a bird flies off a wire, it leaves only a black line on the sky.”
Bragg, who resigned from The New York Times in 2003 after a controversy about properly attributing a freelancer's work, has written a handful of non-fiction books about the South and his family, as well as biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis and soldier Jessica Lynch.
Some characters here are familiar from Bragg’s earlier non-fiction, including his wrenching memoir, “All Over But The Shouting,” and “Ava’s Man.” A significant chunk deals with the same Ava, his grandmother, who had married his grandfather, Charlie, when she was barely 16. In Bragg’s hands it’s now a fable told in food: Their partnership was sealed when he bought a box supper from her at a barn dance, “only to learn that the delicious fried chicken, potato salad, and slab of pie had been prepared by her older sisters, to get her married off and out of the house.”
Charlie rides off to find his own father, a bleak and “wrathful” old man who had abandoned his family, living as a fugitive across state lines after a bloody battle. “What do you want of me, boy?” his father asked. “You have to come with me,” the young man said, “ ‘cause I’ve married a pretty and hardheaded woman who can’t cook a lick, and I do believe that I am a-starvin’ to death.”
Bragg has a bone-deep empathy for people who endure hard times, and leverages that understanding to share even second-hand stories. He takes four luxurious pages to describe a man he’d never met making a single breakfast, pouring on details so thick you’d swear he’d been interviewing the cook in the kitchen.
By turns grim and funny, he can describe the flavors of raccoon, possum, bear, even squirrel brains (cook them with scrambled eggs, “to cut down on that metal taste,” his mother advises), making it clear that they’re desperation meals for people with no better options. He also recognizes how “blue-collar Southern cooks” use time and skill to transform humble ingredients into rapturous feasts. Most of the book’s recipes are gloriously tempting examples from that canon – hand-mixed biscuits swimming in sweet cinnamon-scented milk, ham and redeye gravy, pecan pie, cracklin’ cornbread, even creamed onions that sound simple but are harder than they look to cook to perfection. “I have been trying it for only forty-seven years, but with clean living I may have time to get it just right before my people sing me into the sky,” Bragg wrote.
Once Ava has learned to cook and, oddly, once the title character is born, the book rambles less purposefully, feeling more like an assortment of stories than the flowing narrative of Bragg’s earlier memoirs. That’s fair in a book subtitled “Tales from My Momma’s Table.” And the characters remain indelible, as when Bragg writes how he sometimes sees an old woman tottering along the roadside, stuffing poke salad greens into a burlap bag. He slows the car to make sure it’s not his mother. At times, it is.
“It is as if she continues to eat it, in better times, out of some kind of fealty,” he writes. And then, “ 'Naw,' my momma said. 'That ain’t it. I eat it ‘cause it tastes good.' ”