Review: Rick Bragg’s ‘The Best Cook in the World’ a loving food memoir about his mother

Published May 9 2018
Updated May 9 2018

When Rick Bragg told his mother that his new book about her would be titled The Best Cook in the World, Margaret Bragg protested: "I wasn’t even the best cook that lived on our road."

Bragg writes, "I told her we couldn’t call it The Third-Best Cook on Roy Webb Road because that just didn’t sing."

Wisecracks aside, Bragg’s deep love for his mother, and her cooking, shines throughout the book. And anyone else whose mother is also the best cook in the world knows just how he feels.

The Best Cook in the World is about family, and food, and the South, and all the intricate connections among them. Bragg grew up in northeastern Alabama, where his mother still lives in "a cedar cabin, which rises, like it grew there, from the ancient rocks, oaks, and scaly-bark trees in the lee of Bean Flat Mountain, in the hilly north of Calhoun County."

His people were farmers and blue-collar workers who coped through the generations with poverty and loss, but who were blessed with a gift for storytelling that found full flower in the author.

Bragg, who was a reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the New York Times, has published seven books, many of them drawing upon his family’s history, including the bestselling All Over But the Shoutin’.

That memoir, published in 1998, focused on Margaret Bragg, too, as the indomitable force of her son’s childhood. The Best Cook in the World offers another take, with Bragg and his mother a couple of decades older. He writes that what moved him to begin the book was the realization, when she was hospitalized at age 79, that maybe she wasn’t "somehow immune to passing time."

He also realizes that when she goes, her cooking skills go with her. "She does not own a measuring cup. She does not own a measuring spoon. She cooks in dabs, and smidgens, and tads, and a measurement she mysteriously refers to as, ‘you know, hon, just some.’ " She has never written down a recipe or owned a cookbook.

Yet, he writes, "She cooked, in her first 80 years, more than 70,000 meals," for her family and in restaurants. In his boyhood, the Bragg backyard’s far edge was lined by 13 stoves she had worn out; she’s now up to more than 20.

At first, she was not keen on the cookbook project. "In the end," Bragg writes, "the greatest obstacle to this book was finding a qualified person to write it because this, apparently, was not me. She has eaten my cooking with regret and pity and not some small amount of genuine fear that I might actually poison her with undercooked pork or poultry, poorly washed vegetables or alien spice."

But he won her over, and the result is as much memoir as cookbook. He writes that "the recipes themselves will meander, a little bit, because a recipe is a story like anything else." Put together, all those stories read like a lush and lyrical novel, sometimes hilarious, sometimes harrowing.

In and around those delicious tales, there are dozens of Margaret Bragg’s recipes. Many of them will appeal to a wide range of cooks — recipes for corn bread (no sugar!), beef short ribs, toasted coconut pie and the like.

Others might put off the health-conscious among us, like the recipe for the Perfect Fried Egg. Its ingredient list:

• Lard

• Eggs

• Luck

• Salt and pepper (to taste)

But, as Bragg points out, his family’s traditional style of cooking — laced with salt and pork and lard and butter and enough carbs to give a personal trainer the vapors — is food for people who did hard physical labor every day, all day.

His mother, he writes, "laughed out loud when she first heard the term ‘farm-to-table.’ They had it in her day, too; they called it a flatbed truck. She knows her food is not the healthiest, yet her people live long, long lives, those not killed by gunfire, moonshine or machines."

It’s unlikely many cooks will essay the recipe for Baked Possum and Sweet Potatoes (one of the few credited to someone other than Margaret; it’s a specialty of her sister Juanita, and of course there’s a story about why). First, Bragg writes, you’d need to procure a live possum. Then, because those peculiar critters often consume carrion, you’d have to keep it for a week and feed it fruit or corn, "until you flush the nastiness from its system." Kill it and clean it and after that the recipe’s easy.

On the other hand, Bragg’s brother, asked if he’d ever eaten possum, said, "Not voluntarily." And it’s one of the few dishes Margaret Bragg disdains.

She did, however, learn one culinary use for possums from her mother, Ava Bundrum. As Bragg tells it, Ava was explaining to her 5-year-old daughter how to tell when to pick persimmons, a fruit that when green can peel the surface off your tongue: Look for a possum in the persimmon tree.

"?‘It’s how you know they’re ripe, for a possum won’t eat no persimmon if it’s not ripe,’ she lectured the little girl.

‘What,’ the girl asked, ‘if you ain’t got no possum?’?"

From possums and persimmons to pineapple upside down cake and pear preserves, The Best Cook in the World is finally about how cooking meals, and eating them, can be a powerful way of expressing love.

Last year, Bragg writes, his mother accidentally overcooked a Christmas ham "till it looked like an old, scorched baseball glove laid atop a desiccated bone." She was stricken, but her son assured her it was good, "if a little chewy. ... Because it is my prerogative to lie to my mother in times like these. Everyone else lied to her, too, right along beside me; we lined up to lie to her. We should all be loved like that old woman is."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.