Rick Bragg’s ‘The Best Cook in the World’ a loving food memoir about his mother


When Rick Bragg told his mother that his new book about her would be titled “The Best Cook in the World,” Margaret Bragg protested: “I wasn’t even the best cook that lived on our road.”

Bragg writes, “I told her we couldn’t call it ‘The Third-Best Cook on Roy Webb Road’ because that just didn’t sing.”

Wisecracks aside, Bragg’s deep love for his mother, and her cooking, shines throughout the book. And anyone else whose mother is also the best cook in the world knows just how he feels.

“The Best Cook in the World” is about family, and food, and the South, and all the intricate connections among them. Bragg grew up in northeastern Alabama, where his mother still lives in “a cedar cabin, which rises, like it grew there, from the ancient rocks, oaks, and scaly-bark trees in the lee of Bean Flat Mountain, in the hilly north of Calhoun County.”

His people were farmers and blue-collar workers who coped through the generations with poverty and loss, but who were blessed with a gift for storytelling that found full flower in the author.

Bragg, who was a reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the New York Times, has published seven books, many of them drawing upon his family’s history, including the best-selling “All Over But the Shoutin’.”

That memoir, published in 1998, focused on Margaret Bragg, too, as the indomitable force of her son’s childhood. “The Best Cook in the World” offers another take, with Bragg and his mother a couple of decades older. He writes that what moved him to begin the book was the realization, when she was hospitalized at age 79, that maybe she wasn’t “somehow immune to passing time.”

He also realizes that when she goes, her cooking skills go with her. “She does not own a measuring cup. She does not own a measuring spoon. She cooks in dabs, and smidgens, and tads, and a measurement she mysteriously refers to as, ‘you know, hon, just some.’” She has never written down a recipe or owned a cookbook.

Yet, he writes, “She cooked, in her first 80 years, more than 70,000 meals,” for her family and in restaurants. In his boyhood, the Bragg backyard’s far edge was lined by 13 stoves she had worn out; she’s now up to more than 20.

At first, she was not keen on the cookbook project. “In the end,” Bragg writes, “the greatest obstacle to this book was finding a qualified person to write it because this, apparently, was not me. She has eaten my cooking with regret and pity and not some small amount of genuine fear that I might actually poison her with undercooked pork or poultry, poorly washed vegetables or alien spice.”

But he won her over, and the result is as much memoir as cookbook. He writes that “the recipes themselves will meander, a little bit, because a recipe is a story like anything else.” Put together, all those stories read like a lush and lyrical novel, sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing.

In and around those delicious tales, there are dozens of Margaret Bragg’s recipes. Many of them will appeal to a wide range of cooks — recipes for corn bread (no sugar!), beef short ribs, toasted coconut pie and the like.

Others might put off the health-conscious among us, like the recipe for the Perfect Fried Egg. Its ingredient list:

— Lard

— Eggs

— Luck

— Salt and pepper (to taste)

But, as Bragg points out, his family’s traditional style of cooking — laced with salt and pork and lard and butter and enough carbs to give a personal trainer the vapors — is food for people who did hard physical labor every day, all day.

His mother, he writes, “laughed out loud when she first heard the term ‘farm-to-table.’ They had it in her day, too; they called it a flatbed truck. She knows her food is not the healthiest, yet her people live long, long lives, those not killed by gunfire, moonshine or machines.”

It’s unlikely many cooks will essay the recipe for Baked Possum and Sweet Potatoes (one of the few credited to someone other than Margaret; it’s a specialty of her sister Juanita, and of course there’s a story about why). First, Bragg writes, you’d need to procure a live possum. Then, because those peculiar critters often consume carrion, you’d have to keep it for a week and feed it fruit or corn, “until you flush the nastiness from its system.” Kill it and clean it and after that the recipe’s easy.

On the other hand, Bragg’s brother, asked if he’d ever eaten possum, said, “Not voluntarily.” And it’s one of the few dishes Margaret Bragg disdains.

She did, however, learn one culinary use for possums from her mother, Ava Bundrum. As Bragg tells it, Ava was explaining to her 5-year-old daughter how to tell when to pick persimmons, a fruit that when green can peel the surface off your tongue: Look for a possum in the persimmon tree.

“’It’s how you know they’re ripe, for a possum won’t eat no persimmon if it’s not ripe,’ she lectured the little girl.

‘What,’ the girl asked, ‘if you ain’t got no possum?’”

From possums and persimmons to pineapple upside down cake and pear preserves, “The Best Cook in the World” is finally about how cooking meals, and eating them, can be a powerful way of expressing love.

Last year, Bragg writes, his mother accidentally overcooked a Christmas ham “till it looked like an old, scorched baseball glove laid atop a desiccated bone.” She was stricken, but her son assured her it was good, “if a little chewy. … Because it is my prerogative to lie to my mother in times like these. Everyone else lied to her, too, right along beside me; we lined up to lie to her. We should all be loved like that old woman is.”

———

MODERATE

PINEAPPLE UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

1 1/3 cups flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup lard or shortening

1 egg

3/4 cup whole milk

1 stick butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

9 to 12 slices canned pineapple (save the juice)

1/2 small can crushed pineapple (juice and all)

9 maraschino cherries

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, white sugar, lard or shortening, egg, milk and 1/4 stick of the butter. Mix, however you like, into a smooth batter. My mother believes in using a large spoon, like she is angry at the ingredients. Set aside.

Grease a 9-inch cake pan with the remaining butter, being generous with the butter in the pan’s bottom. Dust the butter with the brown sugar, and line the bottom with the sliced pineapple. Then take the crushed pineapple, allowing it to fill in the gaps. The problem with pineapple upside-down cake is, it doesn’t have enough pineapple, and all you taste is butter and brown sugar. To be sure, take a few tablespoons of the juice from the can and drizzle it on, which will also help sweeten the recipe.

Finally, place a maraschino cherry, a whole one, in the center ring of each pineapple slice. We think this is silly, to be honest, but … well, people just expect things.

Pour the batter over the pineapple. Bake from 50 minutes to an hour. Let it cool about 15 to 20 minutes, and carefully flip it over on a large plate.

Source: “The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table” by Rick Bragg

EASY

MACARONI AND CHEESE

4 strips thick-cut bacon

1 small onion

1 leek or green onion, slivered

About 8 ounces uncooked macaroni (any shape, but my people are suspicious of anything more esoteric than elbows)

1/2 cup or so whole milk

2 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 to 2 cups grated American cheese

1 pinch black pepper

1 pinch cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt (less if bacon is salty)

Cut the bacon into pieces no wider than 1/2 inch. Dice the onion fine. Fry the bacon, and add the finely diced onion and leek or green onion as soon as the fat begins to turn translucent. You want the bacon to be cooked and just beginning to go crisp, but not crumbling. Set aside.

Boil the pasta until it is firm but done. If I used the term “al dente,” someone here would slap me stupid.

Drain the pasta.

Stir into the pasta about half the milk and the butter and return to the stove over low heat; then stir in the cheese, bacon, onions, black pepper and cayenne. Salt to taste, and stir in the remaining milk until you get a perfect, cheesy consistency. The cheese and other goodness should not pool in the bottom of the pan, but cling to the macaroni.

Serve quickly; it will set up like particle board when cold.

This, of course, is not a traditional method unless you are preparing it for 5-year-olds. But we like it.

Source: “The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table” by Rick Bragg

MODERATE

CHICKEN ROASTED IN CIDER WITH CARROTS, TURNIPS AND ONION

Buying poultry in modern times is a conundrum. A fat hen is the best modern-day alternative to the scrawny, battle-hardened game rooster. This is one of those times when tradition must yield to common sense. Still, except for the tenderness, and the greater fat content, the chickens of old probably did have a superior, much cleaner favor, before the age of fish meal, before the time of the mutant, hopped-up, chemically and genetically sculpted poultry you see in the supermarket. Free-range chickens, as much as I hate to admit it, are more than a pretension; they taste more like the chickens I remember from my childhood.

2 carrots

1 large turnip, or 2 medium-sized ones

2 medium sweet onions (can substitute 2 large leeks)

1 1/2 sticks salted butter

1 fat baking hen

1 tablespoon coarse salt

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 1/2 cups cider, hard or soft

1 1/2 cups water

Cayenne pepper, to taste

First prepare the vegetables, and set them aside. They are meant to be eaten, not just as seasoning. Chop the carrots into pieces about 2 to 3 inches long, and peel and chop the turnips into pieces about 2 inches square. You want chunks, not small, diced, bite-sized cubes. Peel and quarter the onions, or if you prefer, cut chunks of leeks, which work very, very well in this dish.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Let the butter soften to room temperature. Take half the stick and cover the skin of the chicken all over with it, and, as Jimmy Jim did, butter the inside of the body cavity. Then, with a devil-may-care look on your face, toss the other, whole stick of butter inside the bird. It will feel good to do it.

“Some people put lemons and oranges and other stuff, but I think you just don’t need it,” said my mother, echoing her grandfather.

Salt and pepper the outside of the bird, then let it sit about 5 or 10 minutes My people believe the flesh will absorb the salt better this way. Pour the cider and water into the roasting pan, being careful not to wash your handiwork from the bird.

Dust the chicken lightly with the cayenne. You are not going for heat here, just a little dash of flavor.

Place the chicken in the oven and cook, covered, between 2 and 2 1/2 hours. You do not need to uncover the bird. “It’ll go golden brown. Watch your drumsticks. If they’re going dark brown, it’s about past done, you know?”

Do not be dismayed if the white meat is not as juicy. “White meat is trouble,” my mother says. “It’s a shame, with all the messin’ around with nature them mad scientists has done, that they haven’t made a chicken with all dark meat.”

I told her we should try duck, and she believed she would stick to chicken. “It’s a little too late to be tryin’ crazy stuff now.”

You can let the chicken rest a few minutes before carving, if you can wait that long.

Source: “The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Table” by Rick Bragg


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