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The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table

Review

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table

What kind of food says “home” to you?

Each of us has a different answer to that question, depending on where we grew up and what we ate as children. There’s some kind of regional cooking that embraces all of us, that expresses love to us and reminds us of holidays and families and grandmothers. But can we reproduce that cooking ourselves, or is it just an intangible memory that grows fainter as years go by?

Rick Bragg realized that, when his mother was in the hospital, he didn’t really know the exact recipes that she’d cooked for him and their family all of his life, or the stories that went with them. Margaret Bragg never used a cookbook or wrote down a recipe. But in her heart and mind (and fingers) were stored the meals that her mother cooked, as well as those of her grandfather and the rest of her family line before them. These meals were shaped by wars, deprivation and poverty, and their careful habits spilled over into times of plenty. Most of all, though, they were shaped by the women and men who worked hard every day and sat down to the one thing that would satisfy their bodies and souls, before they got up the next morning and did it all over again --- a well-seasoned, nourishing meal prepared by devoted, skilled hands.

"All of these stories are told in Rick Bragg’s inimitable voice, as shared with him by his mother. They are full of humor, life and truth, and so are the recipes."

So Bragg convinced Margaret, and she began to share her family’s stories and special brand of Southern cooking with her son. And the result of many conversations between them is perhaps the best food and family memoir I’ve ever read. In THE BEST COOK IN THE WORLD, you’ll find recipes refined over a hundred years (or more) of repeated cooking that will make your mouth water. But you’ll also find colorful true stories that will rival those of the most creative fiction writer, ones that will make you laugh out loud and keep reading with utter delight.

It turns out that when Margaret’s father married her mother Ava, he was a little afraid that he was going to starve. Really. His new bride was beautiful, but she was stubborn and headstrong and honestly could not cook. But Charlie’s father, Jimmy Jim Bundrum, could. The only problem (other than Ava’s inability to cook for the newly married couple) was that Jimmy Jim had taken off years before so that the law couldn’t get him. He was a difficult man, and an angry one, and far too good in a knife fight. But when Charlie rode up on a mule asking for his help, Jimmy Jim returned. And the hard man came home to save his family by teaching his hardheaded daughter-in-law to cook.

At first, Ava thought she might kill Jimmy Jim. But she didn’t, and he brought food, cooking and life to the couple and to the children who came later on. And the food! Pinto beans and ham bone. Cream sausage gravy. Sweet potato cobbler. Meat loaf and scalloped potatoes. Cracklin’ cornbread. And so much more. He taught Ava, who taught her own daughters, who passed on delicious food prepared by sure hands.

All of these stories are told in Bragg’s inimitable voice, as shared with him by his mother. They are full of humor, life and truth, and so are the recipes. Old photos are also part of the memoir and help us picture the members of the Bundrum and Bragg families, but Bragg’s storytelling skills are so remarkable that we can see everyone even without them.

As I read THE BEST COOK IN THE WORLD, I thought often of my own grandmother and of the food I grew up with. My family also loved cream gravy, chicken and pinto beans (although we ate ours the “Texas” way that Margaret disapproved of), okra and potatoes. And I know a few of our family recipes, though some of my grandmother’s cooking is only a memory. But I was inspired as I read Bragg’s own stories and recipes, both to try the ones in this book and to revisit my own.

How wonderful it is to create special meals with love that will nourish both body and soul, to be reminded that an evening meal can be more than food valued for its quickness or ease of preparation. It can be something that enriches us, as we create it, serve it and eat it.

Reviewed by Melanie Reynolds on April 27, 2018

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table
by Rick Bragg

  • Publication Date: April 24, 2018
  • Genres: Cookbooks, Cooking, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1400040418
  • ISBN-13: 9781400040414