Host Post: Rick Bragg eats – and writes – his heart out

This Saturday, May 11 – Pulitzer prize-winning author Rick Bragg reads from his evocative southern food memoir, The Best Cook in the World – Tales from My Mama’s Table on The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour at 7 pm on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and at 9 pm on Alabama Public Radio Musical guests include Will Kimbrough (I Like It Down Here) and Love Moor (Simp Girl). This show was recorded at the Cedar Street Social Club in Mobile, AL on May 4, 2019.

Bragg serves up full-course emotions in The Best Cook in the World – Tales from My Mama’s Table (Knopf). Mixing true family stories (a recipe for chicken and dressing starts with how Aunt Sis shot out her husband’s teeth) combined with the family’s recipes of their Depression-era meals, the book tugs at heartstrings and funny bone alike.

The “Best Cook” of the title is Bragg’s mother, Margaret, who never wrote down a recipe or owned a cookbook. “She cooked with ghosts,” Bragg notes. Margaret says she wasn’t even the “best cook on our road but I did wear out 18 ovens.”

Bragg writes: “Since she was eleven years old, even if all she had to work with was neck bones, peppergrass, or poke salad, she put good food on a plate. She cooked for dead-broke uncles, hungover brothers, shade-tree mechanics, faith healers, dice shooters, hairdressers, pipe-fitters, crop-dusters… She cooked for people she’d just as soon poisoned, and, for the loves of her life.”

In 1924, Jimmy Jim Bundrum, (Bragg’s great-grandfather) an outlaw hermit hiding out in the Georgia mountains, is brought back, grouchy and terminally taciturn, to Calhoun County, AL to teach the starving family how to gather, prepare and preserve food.

Among his multitude of tips, he tells them that the hardest part of wringing a chicken’s neck is selecting the right one, after that, it’s easy because, “They ain’t likely to catch on.” Also, how much is a “mess?” As in, a mess of greens, a mess of bream. Answer: “Enough.”

Each family story ends in a recipe and the family keeps coming: Aunt Edna has a crappie filet knife so sharp, “the children weren’t allowed to look at it.” There’s Aunt Juanita, who gets caught with Ava (Rick’s grandmother) on a train trestle -on bicycles- as a roaring diesel bears down. Diner waitress Granny Fair throttles her ’57 Chevy “like her hairnet was a crash helmet.”

As for the recipes, don’t skip over them! Bragg writes them as part of the story: every breakfast item imaginable, including red-eye gravy and biscuits so good they double as dessert; spare ribs stewed in butter beans; the fried chicken of your dreams, baked possum (low in cholesterol); wild plum pie (after a miles-long walk to the plum tree and back); blackberry cobbler, turtle soup (avoid the neck); porridge (yes- like in Mother Goose!), an “immaculate” cheeseburger, cube steak, hog jowls, shredded purple cabbage slaw, barbecued pork chops, tea cakes, pecan pie, buttermilk pie and… well, loosen your belt before reading.

One reviewer counted over 80 pounds of butter in the recipes.

Best of all, you’ll see and hear your own grandmother/father in these pages, or flash back to family meals and gatherings from your own people. Bragg’s lyrical and evocative prose makes this a “cookbook” that rises to the level of literature. Strong, lean and precise, Bragg’s writing goes to the heart – and stomach – and serves up a second helping of his memories and ours.

– Jim Dees