Discovering an author who writes well of things you like to read can be like Christmas was when you were a kid. I was in a doctor's office with time to kill and had not brought along something good to read, a mistake on my part. So, I picked up an old copy of “Southern Living" magazine near at hand and began leafing through it.
Don't misunderstand me; “Southern Living” is a fine, well-crafted magazine. The cover photography often features a dessert that looks as if angels had made it. Also, as I don't plan on moving to a sun-drenched beach house on the Georgia Riviera any time soon and will be needing help with my decor, I don't often peruse “Southern Living.” On this occasion, however, I did, and am glad I did so, for on the very last page, right next to the back inside cover, was a column entitled "Southern Journal" by a fellow named Rick Bragg.
I read the column then discretely tore it out (shame on me!) and took the page with me when I left. Back home, I looked through a pile of magazines which I suspected might harbor a few old copies of “Southern Living."Lucky me: I found four copies and each contained one of Bragg's essays on some aspect of the South. I read them and then went online to find out more about the writer.
Born in 1959, Bragg grew up in the unincorporated community of Possum Trot near Jacksonville, in northeastern Alabama, and took a degree from Jacksonville State University. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1996 for his writings in The New York Times, and won the James Beard Award for his writings on food and travel.
Bragg has authored eight non-fiction books. I have now read his 2015 collection of columns, “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South." I devoured the book in two days and wished it was longer; the book was that good.
Next, I got my hands on Bragg’s “The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Southern Table,”published in 2018 by Vintage Books. It is a thick 536 pages. Besides the main text, it has family photos and recipes. I am about halfway through it; I’ll have it completed by the time you read this column.
Bragg’s writing is as refreshing as a slab of ice-cold watermelon on a sticky-hot August afternoon. His writing reads as good as his mother’s food probably tastes, and that’s saying a lot.
As Bragg explains, “These recipes and stories come, one by one, from the beautiful, haunted landscape itself, from inside the lunchboxes of men who worked deep in the earth and out in the searing sun, from homemade houseboats in the middle channels of slow rivers, or in the dark, high places as we chased the beautiful sound of our dogs through the hills and pines. They come from feasts and damn near famine, from funerals and other celebrations, and a thousand tales that meandered to no place in particular, and some I will never forget as long as I live. I tried to write them as they were lived, tried to write them richly, because we believe that a dull people will rarely cook rich food, and sure will not appreciate it when it is laid before them.”
The book contains recipes and instructions for what some may label “blue collar” foods like meatloaf, cracklin’ cornbread, collard greens, baked sweet potatoes, pineapple upside-down cake, blackberry cobbler, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie and so forth. You get the idea. I have worked up an appetite just typing this paragraph.
Bragg continues about “The Best Cook in the World" “I guess you would call it [the book] a food memoir, but it is really just a cookbook, told the way we tell everything, with a certain amount of meandering. Even the recipes themselves will meander, a little bit, because a recipe is a story like anything else.”
Someone - obviously an intelligent, sensitive and discerning individual - once observed that if you ask a Southerner a question, he or she will answer you with a story. And that, my friends, is reason enough to be proud of who we are, especially when our stories are about our people, our food, our speech and our culture.
“In a South that no longer seems to remember its heart,” writes Bragg, “our food may be the best part left. It is the opposite of the bloody past, the doomed ideals and our still-divisive, modern-day culture. It is a thing that binds us more than it shoves us apart, from each other and the rest of the world.”
Our Iredell County Public Library has several of Bragg’s books and can get any of his titles through the Cardinal System. Also, the books may be bought through the usual online companies.