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Ask Rick Bragg for his mother’s recipe for biscuits, and you’ll hear a story about a knife fight and a man who hid in the woods until he was compelled to come out to teach his son’s new bride how to cook. Eventually, you’ll also get a list of ingredients that will make you want to dash to your kitchen and get going.

Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer- prize- winning reporter and author of “All Over but the Shoutin’,” “Ava’s Man,” and “The Prince of Frogtown.” He is also the number one fan of his mother’s cooking–and of the woman herself.

“The Best Cook in the World” is a tribute to good old fashioned Southern cooking, but it is equally an appreciation of someone who tells it like it is–with unaffected charm and humor. Far be it from Rick’s mother to be intimidated by her formidably talented son: she won’t even dignify some of the questions he asks about recipes with an answer.

 Margaret Bragg doesn’t own a single cookbook. She measures in dabs and smidgens, and when her son, in an effort to provide us less intuitive cooks with a recipe, asks for certain details she  will say things like “till it tastes right.” About cornbread, she says, “Cook it right the first time, and pay attention to the smell. You will smell it when it’s done, that kind of nutty smell. For the rest of your life, you can time it with your nose.” She is also not shy of offering her opinion of how other cooks do things. She believes macaroni and cheese baked in the oven makes it too dry and takes all the taste right out of it. She says, “People who say they like [it] are just puttin’ on cause they seen it that way in a magazine.”

 Luckily, Bragg coaxed enough information from his mother that the book is indeed full of recipes with measured ingredients. And the recipes are divine: buttermilk pie, grilled cheese sandwiches with pear preserves or muscadine jelly. (Here’s Margaret on grilled cheese: “I’d rather have a lot of butter and put up with a little bit of soggy.”) blackberry cobbler with traditional or drop crust. (Margaret on the suggestion for putting ice cream on top: “If you got good cobbler, you don’t need to try to make it no better.”) ham and redeye gravy, fried chicken and perfect mashed potatoes.”

On fried chicken, Bragg writes:

My people would not, despite what some of my kinfolks have claimed, step over a dead body to get to the supper table. They would, however, drag one out if the middle of the road and leave it in the weeds to get back to the house on time if my grandma was frying chicken.

So what it this book, memoir or cookbook? Both. For Rick Bragg, you can’t take the story out of anything, and if you’re going to do any kind of cookbook, you need to have the recipe with the stories. So it’s both. 

I challenge you to turn to any page in this book and not be charmed by what you read there. Things like this: when Rick’s mother took exception to his calling this THE BEST COOK IN THE WORLD, meaning her, he said that, as author, he got to decide on the title. “Well,” she said. “I did wear out eighteen stoves.”

But reading Rick Bragg is one thing; listening to him talk is another. He talks as good as cobbler tastes. You’ll have a chance to hear him and ask questions of him on Sunday, September 13th at 2:00p.m. This will be a webinar co-sponsored by Writing Matters and the 19th Century club. It is a free event, but you must register to attend.

Here’s a recipe for deviled eggs from page 453 in the book. It’s one of the shorter ones and who doesn’t love deviled eggs?

DEVILED EGGS

  • 1 dozen eggs
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard (no more)
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced sweet pickle
  • 1 teaspoon dill pickle juice
  • about 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

This will make twenty-four halves, but if they’re any good it’s better to have too many.

Hard-boil, cool, peel and split the eggs. Remove the yolks and, with a fork, mash and stir them until they are mostly smooth. “It won’t hurt if there’s a little bit here and there that don’t get mashed,” my mother said.

Stir in all the other ingredients except the cayenne, and mix it until it goes mostly smooth. Using a spoon, fill the empty whites with the mixture. You do not have to be exact. Dust each one–slightly, slightly–with a little cayenne Some people like smoked paprika.

They will still be good the following day, but the day after they will not. Eat ’em up.

–Oak Park Eats’ guest author and Oak Park resident, Elizabeth Berg, has been on the New York Times Bestseller list multiple times. Her novels, “Durable Goods” and “Joy School” were both selected as one of the American Library Association’s Best Books of the Year. 

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