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Storyteller Rick Bragg On Food And Family

Cover of Rick Bragg's "The Best Cook In The World"
Courtesy Penguin Random House

Best-selling author Rick Bragg has written another memoir about his family, and growing up poor in the hardscrabble back country of Alabama. This time, though, he tells it through stories of food -- and the importance of a good meal in lives full of backbreaking labor and few pleasures. His book, "The Best Cook In The World: Tales from My Momma's Southern Table " is also a loving tribute to his mother, Margaret. 

Telling his family's story through food, Bragg says, let him explore their character in a different way than he had in his previous books, which include “All Over But the Shoutin’” and “Ava’s Man.”
"When you tell a true story about family --  especially the people from the  foothills of the Appalachians -- there's going to be a lot of grit in it, there's going to be a lot of blood in it, and there's going to be knife fights and fist fights, and killin' an dyin' and hurtin' and lovin' and  warrin'.  It's not going to have room enough for what is really important, which we all know is food!"
He said he felt the urgency to put down these stories when his mother became ill with cancer, and he feared he would lose her.
"One day I just asked her, 'hey, where's that recipe for beef short ribs?'  And she said, 'well, hon, I've never written down a recipe.' And it occurred to me that every bit of cooking she'd ever done in her life was with ghosts. And ever recipe had this great story behind it...sometimes bloody or violent or hilarious."
Bragg said that although he's been writing about his family for the past 25 years, using food as a timeline gave him a chance to dig back a little deeper into the past, even as far back as Reconstruction, and before the Great Depression. He begins his book by explaining how his grandfather tracked down his outlaw great-grandfather and brought him home to teach Bragg’s grandmother how to cook.
“A lot of the things my great grandfather cooked, Jimmy Jim Bundrum, let's face it, they were stolen! And if he hadn't been larcenous, they wouldn't have had that food to eat. He stole chicken and hogs, and stole one cow we know of.  He led it out on the railroad trestle to perish, which is not kind, but it did result in some very good beef short ribs, I am told." 
Each chapter of the book ends with a few recipes. Bragg said his favorites are the ones of the foods he isn't able to get any more.
"There's a recipe for red-eye gravy over diced tomato and a biscuit,” Bragg said. “I only get that during tomato season, in my momma's kitchen."
Bragg will be in Tampa speaking about his book "The Best Cook In The World" April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tampa Theatre.

Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.
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