Review: Words of praise for great cooking, great cooks
“The Best Cook in the World: Tales from my Momma’s Table,” (Alfred A. Knopf), by Rick Bragg.
Rick Bragg’s latest book — “The Best Cook in the World” — is unusual enough in its approach that he felt obliged to explain what is intended.
“I guess you could call it a food memoir, but it is really just a cookbook, told the way we tell everything, with a certain amount of meandering,” he writes.
And between the recipes and tales of great cooks in his Alabama family, Bragg meanders at length.
He tells of the experiences of growing up in the rural South, the misadventures of young boys snatching food for their dinner table, the challenges faced by young couples getting started, the continuing struggle to find work and the talented family cooks, mostly women, who provided tasty and nourishing meals that sustained them all.
With money often sparse and work tough to find, the ability to put a good meal on the table was an invaluable skill. True for all families, but more appreciated when it’s sometimes a struggle.
Bragg and others in his family had to convince his mom that it was important “to write it all down, to capture not just the legend, but the soul of her cooking for generations to come.” But she doesn’t rely on exact measurements and cookbooks, but “dabs,” smidgens” and “tads.”
“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 the plate,” Bragg writes of Margaret, his mom. “She cooked for dead-broke uncles, hung-over brothers, shade-tree mechanics, faith healers, dice shooters, hairdressers, pipefitters, crop dusters, high-steel walkers and well diggers.”
The kitchen is “all about the past and the ghosts crowd into it with every passing year,” Bragg writes, saying the recipes come from the French countryside, Irish, English and Scots.
It’s important to understand “the power of food,” especially for poor folks, who may not have a lot else and often have to scramble to find work, he writes. He tells of young men crisscrossing “from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee looking for work on the rails.”
Anyone who has tried to “read” a cookbook will understand that a memoir full of recipes and frequent digressions on topics like the perfect tomato, the benefits of pokeweed and the value of a well-cooked possum will take some patience. Many of the recipes offer creative options with basic food choices like chicken, beef, potatoes and biscuits.
Readers may occasionally be tempted to skip over a recipe to more storytelling about his family and their adventures. But be sure to mark the pages on recipes of interest.
The concept of a food memoir can be challenging and probably would not work in the hands of a less skilled storyteller. Those who thumb through cookbooks at length will probably sail through the recipe sections. And Bragg often uses the recipes to launch into another yarn.
What he does best is present the memorable characters of his youth in a continuing narrative from one of his books to the next.
And Bragg explains the relative obscurity of some who grow up in the region this way:
“They say a poor man makes the paper only twice in the Deep South unless he breaks the law or plays football. The newspapers record the happenstances of his birth and the inevitability of his death,” Bragg writes.
“If he was not an important man, or at least born to important people, it is unlikely either time, a great deal of ink was spilled. A lot of great men have lived and died down here inside a paragraph or two.”
That certainly is not the case for Rick Bragg’s friends, kinfolk and especially his mom, whose stories are now preserved in the pages of his colorful memoir.
Will Lester, who has written politics, general news and features for The Associated Press, is now an editor in the AP’s Washington Bureau.
Follow Will Lester on Twitter at http://twitter.com/wjlester