In a perfect world, all cooks would get the recognition that author Rick Bragg bestows on his mother. His new memoir/cookbook, “The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table,” celebrates the Southern cooking of his mother and five generations of her Alabama family.
Bragg, best known for his previous books on the South, had to wait until his mother was in her 80s before she was willing to share her recipes, which had never been written down, but passed from her mother and grandparents. “She never used a cookbook, not in her whole life. She never cooked from a written recipe, and never wrote down one of her own, ” Bragg writes. “The people who taught her the secrets of Southern, blue-collar cooking are all gone now, and they did not cook from a book, either; most of them did not even know how to read and write.”
To capture his mother’s recipes, Bragg spent hours in the kitchen with her, and what emerged was less a how-to for cooking than a family history. “These recipes and stories come, one by one, from the beautiful, haunted landscape itself, from inside the lunchboxes of men who worked deep in the earth and out in the searing sun, from homemade boats in the middle channels of slow rivers, or in the dark, high places as we chased the beautiful sounds of our dogs through the hills and pines,” Bragg writes. “They come from feasts and damn-near famine, from funerals and other celebrations and a thousand tales that meandered to no place in particular, and some I will never forget for as long as I live.”
Getting measurements wasn’t easy; Bragg had to start with approximations because his mother doesn’t own a measuring cup or measuring spoons, and quantifies most ingredients as “a handful” or “part of a handful” or just “enough.” Converting the ingredients to cups and spoonfuls was just part of the process; the stories that put the food in context take up even more of the book than the recipes.
The stories are full of vivid characters: Bragg’s hotheaded grandmother, his great-grandfather, who is credited with many of the recipes in the book, and some colorful aunts and uncles. “My uncle Jimbo is not a gourmet nor an unbiased and veracious critic; he once ate a bologna sandwich sitting on a dead mule, to win a bet,” he writes.
Bragg saves his most lyrical writing for the woman he considers the best cook in the world, his mother. “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, high-steel walkers and well diggers,” Bragg writes. “She seasoned pinto beans with ham bone and baked cracklin’ cornbread for old women who had tugged a pick sack, and stewed fat spareribs in creamy butter beans that truck drivers would brag on three thousand miles from home. She fried thin apple pies in white butter and cinnamon for pretty young women with a bus ticket out of this one-horse town, and baked sweet potato cobbler for the grimy pipe fitters and dusty brick layers they left behind. She cooked, most of all, to make it taste good, to make every chipped melamine plate a poor man’s banquet.”