“The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table”
Author: Rick Bragg
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Price: $28.95 (Hardcover)
Rick Bragg's fans can't get enough of his family stories and they won't this time either, although at 528 pages, this is Bragg's longest book.
Readers have come to know Rick's family through his many previous memoirs, “Ava's Man,” “The Prince of Frogtown” and, especially, “All Over But the Shoutin'.” We have become acquainted with his mother, Margaret, her sacrifices for the family, and her extraordinary cooking.
Bragg, reminiscing with his brother, is reminded that Momma, back when they lived on the Roy Webb Road, had "cooked every meal we ate, seven days a week... except when she got us all a foot-long from Johnson's cafe, every payday." She "wore out thirteen stoves, all rusting, derelict," "banished to the deep backyard."
Bragg believes his mother to be the best cook in the world, although Mrs. Bragg modestly demurs.
"I wasn't even the best cook that lived on our road....Your aunt Edna was a fine cook. Our momma was a fine cook."
And Mrs. Bragg, like most of her peers, never used a cookbook. Those women learned from their elders, and as they learned they took in the stories of where these recipes came from, who taught them, or the circumstances, sometimes deep in the past, where this particular dish got made.
Food and stories go together, and in this, dare I say, charming volume, Bragg, pencil in hand, has elicited from his mother the recipes, translating dabs and smidgens "and you know, hon, just SOME" into tablespoons and cupfuls, so they could be written down here, with directions. There are 34 chapters, and each chapter has one or more recipes, and the story that goes with them.
The first of these sections, surprisingly, stars a man.
In 1924 a young fellow, Jimmy Bundrum, had married a 16-year-old girl named Ava who could not cook. AT ALL. The boy was starving to death, we are told, and he rode cross country to fetch his father, James B. Bundrum, who was essentially an outlaw, to teach his bride to cook.
Thus it begins.
The girl cooked greens "that tasted like grass" and beans "with the consistency of river rock.” The meat was either scorched or "smutty." The old man began at the beginning with rolls, biscuits, sausage gravy, buttered grits and the perfect fried egg, which as described here, is trickier than you thought to get right. (Of eggs, Momma says "Use brown eggs when you can get 'em....They're more like real eggs.")
Ava was resentful, resistant at first, but the old man persevered. Through the early 1920s the lessons progressed. They moved on to creamed onions, carrot and red cabbage slaw, and cornbread, every recipe accompanied by an anecdote, an event, a family legend of some kind.
As the book moves through time, we find recipes for hard times, like poke salad (like wild mushrooms, not for amateurs) or barbecued bologna. Included are some recipes for the unusual, like baked possum. (One can hunt them with dogs, but if you have a dead cow, the possums will come to you.)
There is a recipe for turtle soup. (Bragg's grandfather caught it with his bare hands.) Not too many readers will go there either. The turtle, big around as a washtub, only yielded six or so pounds of usable meat.
Since a lot of the meat being cooked here is cheaper cuts, cooking times are long. There is little fast food, in any sense of the word.
Whether one finds the recipes useful or not, the stories are great, especially those involving catching, killing, cleaning and frying the Sunday chicken.
Some recipes suggest a modest prosperity, like the one for smothered cube steak.
Scattered throughout the stories are Bragg's momma's commentaries on the vagaries of human nature. It's mixed:
Momma warns Rick about butter rolls: "‘But be careful 'cause they can burn you.'
I told her we could just leave that to common sense.
Some people, she explained, 'don't have none.’
She looked at me a little longer than was necessary.”
Momma’s cooking is traditional. "She has nothing against fusion cooking, whatever that is, or something called, honest to God, ‘shrimp foam,' or ‘bright rice,’ or recipes involving algae, or three-year-old duck eggs, or yellow catfish pounded into a fermented paste.'' “‘People is used to different things now,’ she says, 'but don't you bring it into my kitchen.'"
In her opinion, food has not gotten any better in Alabama over time, foodie movements notwithstanding. “People settle for less," she says. "It's like they give up on having anything good." She also counsels against too much pepper sauce. “I don't know why people feel they got to mess stuff up."
Bragg does remind the reader that a lot of the flavor in these dishes comes from generous amounts of butter, salt, lard, sugar, and bacon grease, but so what.
In Momma's girlhood, the farm to table movement meant the bed of a pick-up truck.
The government cheese used to be real good, eggs aren't what they were, and there has not been a decent tomato in Alabama in decades. Ubi sunt, indeed.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.