JACKSONVILLE, Ala. — Bestselling author Rick Bragg is back where he began, living in rural northeastern Alabama with the woman whose food has sustained him and anyone else who came through her kitchen for decades.
After a newspaper career that sent him across the globe and amid a book-writing career that has him on the road for weeks at a stretch, the Pulitzer Prize winner spends all the time he can these days with mother Margaret Bragg, the subject of his latest book, “The Best Cook in the World.”
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, “The Best Cook in the World” is a cookbook, but not like one of those old Betty Crocker volumes that simply listed recipes like “Ham Wellington with Chutney” and ended with a reminder that calories count.
Bragg’s work is more a narrative cookbook that’s heavy on stories about growing up poor, wearing out stoves and the role food plays both in his family and his native South, which gets a little more like everywhere else each time Domino’s delivers a pizza out in the county.
Margaret Bragg’s cooking is the main course; her recipes populate the space between her son’s prose.
She’s 81 and frail after cancer and cardiac scares, yet there are still mules to feed and yard dogs to pet and a house to tend. So Bragg helps out where needed and writes in her basement, going to town for the occasional meal of fast-food chicken when she’s not up to cooking or helping steady her as she walks out to the small garden beside her log home.
“You be careful on this slope,” Bragg told his mom, a hand on her back. Her legs just aren’t as strong as they used to be.
Like so many other cooks of her generation, Margaret Bragg never used a recipe or wrote down how to make a biscuit; cooking was a skill passed down orally, something done by feel and taste. For the book, she helped her middle of three sons translate “pinches” and “handfuls” into measures that readers could understand and mimic.
“I can tell if I use my hand how much a tablespoon is or how much a teaspoon is, so I went by that,” she said, leaning against a kitchen counter.
With “The Best Cook in the World ” on the New York Times’ list for bestselling nonfiction, Bragg currently spends most of his time on the road for a book tour. With earlier books including “All Over but the Shoutin’” and “Ava’s Man,” Bragg can draw a crowd at book signings or speaking engagements.
Bragg is scheduled to be at a book store in Carrollton, Georgia, on Mother’s Day before flying to Washington D.C., so a special dinner was planned to celebrate a few days early.
“Probably instead of mom cooking, since it’s Mother’s Day, we’ll have Cooter Brown’s barbecued ribs,” said Bragg, referring to an area restaurant. “I might try to beg her to make me some deviled eggs.”
“I can do that,” his mom said.