Bragg describes cooking as if it is the perfect juncture of art and science.
There’s a bit of Jack Kerouac and a bit of James Agee in the breathless opening recitation of The Best Cook in the World, which also calls to mind the opening monologue of Trainspotting. Rick Bragg begins big, with a fresh pot of ingredients that brim with Southern nostalgia. His writing is informed by both his upbringing in Possum Trot, Alabama and his career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote for the New York Times and several other newspapers.
Central to Bragg’s storytelling is his mother, the eponymous cook who has never used a recipe but has mastered Southern cuisine. This provides one thread of humor throughout the book: once Bragg has secured his mother’s willingness to share her cooking techniques, he must find ways to quantify dabs, smidgens and three different measures of handful: part of a handful, a handful and a real good handful. She knows when something is done baking because it smells right. She protests against her son’s request for a temperature at which to set the oven, concerned that she cannot provide a good answer since she doesn’t know anything about the oven of any (let alone every) person who might try out one of her recipes. If you’ve never met a cantankerous, strong, old Southern woman who can cook until the cows come home, meet Margaret Bragg.
The family history begins in 1924, when Bragg’s grandfather Charlie is hoodwinked into marrying the bewitching Ava, who serves dinner and pie prepared by her sisters, hoping to match her with a gullible and hungry young man. Ava has no skill for cooking or baking, and in 1924 that rendered her basically unfit for marriage. Charlie’s only remedy is to go find his father, Jimmy Jim Bundrum, who has deserted his Alabama family in the aftermath of a knife fight in which he may or may not have killed another man. The old man agrees, begrudgingly and wordlessly, to follow his son home from Georgia to teach the young bride how to cook. So it goes: Bragg’s family stories are not outrageous enough to wonder if they are flat-out lies, but as is the case with most family stories, they seem to grow to legendary stature over time. Bragg bears this out in the stories about his grandfather’s cousin Sis, a large woman with a larger-than-life presence, about whom he writes, “She lived just slightly this side of folklore, and people, of course, built on her legend.”
Sis is also known among the family for shooting her husband in the teeth (“They was real big teeth,” Bragg’s Aunt Juanita explained, not very helpfully) and for her chicken and dressing, one of several dozen recipes included in the book. Each recipe features quoted directions from the cook along with commentary from the author that ranges from sincere to sarcastic: that Bragg lovingly takes liberties with what his mother says is central to the pleasures of The Best Cook in the World. The recipes range across traditional Southern fare such as meat loaf, fried chicken, fried okra and pecan pie, along with a selection of recipes that are less popular in contemporary kitchens, like turtle soup and baked possum with sweet potatoes. Each recipe is there with a purpose: to tell the family stories that matter most.
Bragg’s storytelling is so rich with description that certain characters could stand alone. Granny Fair, as anyone and everyone called Bragg’s Uncle Ed’s mother, is one: “Her name was Irene, but no one called her anything but Granny Fair. She wore cat’s-eye glasses with little rhinestones in the sharp corners, and what she could not make out through those thick lenses she ignored. She drove as if her hairnet was a crash helmet, and a ‘51 Chevy were a rocket ship to the moon.” This is only our introduction to Granny Fair, who is Margaret Bragg’s ride to the blue-collar diner where she is a cook and Granny Fair is a waitress. For Bragg’s Momma, this is not a dead-end job but a way to make the lives of hundreds of people just a little better on any given day.
Margaret’s brother William is another memorable character who appears often during the long family history and often in relation to specific stories, like the one about William and his brother stealing the pies Ava made, which the boys were directed to deliver as a peace offering to the neighbors, but never it made it to their door. Much later in life, Bragg offers a brief comment on his Uncle William: “It was said he had taken to hanging out at the city cemetery, not out of any great melancholy over his impending demise, but because that was one more place the widow women congregated.” These stories are made endearing not only because of Bragg’s writing but also because he carries us through nearly 100 years of family history, and we know these characters as children, as young adults and as the revered (albeit cranky) elders of the family.
Bragg describes cooking as if it is the perfect juncture of art and science, and perhaps in some ways that is precisely the way to explain the glorious, yet straightforward nature of Southern cooking. Although he makes clear that he is neither a talented nor practiced cook, Bragg is devoted to sustaining the traditions of both food and stories that are central to his Southern family. They are quirky and hungry, and not always well-behaved, but he makes it easy to appreciate them. Since The Best Cook in the World is also chock full of recipes, you may find yourself drawn to the kitchen to sample some Southern fare. The cooking, like the reading, will likely be time well spent.