In The Best Cook in the World, Rick Bragg brings together the two biggest aspects of Southern identity: storytelling and food. From a fugitive father teaching his son’s new wife how to stretch scant provisions, to a hog that “suicided itself” when the family was skipping out in the middle of the night to avoid paying rent, Bragg shows that good eating can sometimes make up for hard times. In the particulars of his own family’s struggle through the last century, he offers Southerners a chance to reflect on their own families’ stories and to be grateful for their ancestors’ strength, determination, and guile in ensuring that the babies were fed.
What follows is an edited excerpt from an interview conducted for WYPL-FM’s Book Talk program. (Click here to listen or download the full podcast.)
Chapter 16: For some reason, I thought this was going to be a recipe book, and there are recipes in it, but it’s more like the ratio of pork in a mess of greens.
Rick Bragg: Yeah, it’s a narrative going back more than a hundred years to the start of our food. There are some recipes in there. I don’t know how scientifically necessary they are. We wanted to tell the story of the food with all the color, drama, fightin’, shootin’, lovin’, and marryin’. There was all that life, but with the food that bolstered it, held it up. Yeah, I had fun on this one.
Chapter 16: Are the stories just the way they were told to you, or have you added some salt for embellishment?
Bragg: Well, there’s always going to be fourth hand, an embellishment down the line, but we tried to stick close, because the thing is, there’s not any point in adding more salt to something that’s salted enough. My favorite stories were like third-hand from my aunt’s talking about their grandparents, but some of them were from my own childhood. Some of them were from sleeping at the foot of my grandma’s bed. But most of them were from sitting with my mom and Aunt Juanita, talking to my Uncle Bill and my Uncle Jimbo at family reunions, and just gathering string all these years.
Chapter 16: If there was anything that kind of tied the recipes and the cooking together, it’s that you had to pay attention. You couldn’t just wander off. So how does a woman who has six or seven tow-headed kids running around keep focused enough to make the cooking good?
Bragg: With great difficulty. A lot of people think that you render lard to get cracklings. No, you cook down your pork fat to get lard, and the cracklings are just this wonderful extra, but it is deadly dangerous. Can you imagine a big roiling pot of oil, as big as a Fiat, with all these kids running around, throwing rocks, screaming, making mud pies?
So my grandmother would take a stick and draw a line in the dirt, and to the boys—who were barely human, so wild that they were barely of this species—she would say, “OK, you can’t cross this line.” I’m sure she did a lot of death-defying things while holding a baby on one hip. It’s kinda like how they didn’t ride with seat belts.
Chapter 16: When you told your momma that the book was going to be called The Best Cook in the World, she was a little bit skeptical.
Bragg: She was afraid that it would be seen as boasting. Momma has that odd mix of a working woman’s humility and a rigid pride in her craft and food. She didn’t want me to just puff my chest out and say, “My mom is the best cook in the world.” I never will forget that she asked, “Whatcha gonna call it?”” I told her, and she said, “I wasn’t even the best cook that lived on our road.”
Chapter 16: Third best, I think she said.
Bragg: She said, “My momma was a good cook and my sister Edna.” I said, “But Momma, calling it ‘The Third-Best Cook on the Roy Webb Road’ does not sing. And besides, you know, it’s my book about you. You’re my momma, and I think that you’re the best cook in the world.”
Stephen Usery is the producer of Book Talk, an author-interview program that airs Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. Central Time on WYPL FM 89.3, a service of Memphis Public Libraries. He lives in Memphis.