Off the page: The Best Cook in the World

Rick Bragg always has a way of making readers hungry. In his newest book, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, his description of the working-class mountain food of his ancestors—Baked Hog Jowl, Chicken Roasted in Cider, Sweet Potato Cobbler—zings with such savory language that it makes your sophisticated palate yearn for simplicity, makes you dig in your cupboards for your cast iron skillet and keeps you from eating out at restaurants because they didn’t soak their beans long enough. It will welcome you home. You can almost smell the succotash from here.

But his writing also makes readers hungry for more of his personal stories. Especially about his momma. Fortunately for us, this Alabama native convinced his mother, Margaret Bragg, to share family recipes that, up until now, have never been written down.

“It’s all I’ve ever been real good at, and people always bragged on my cooking … you know, ’cept the ones who don’t know what’s good,” she told Bragg when he asked about her craft.

But this isn’t just a book of his mother’s recipe for spareribs stewed in butter beans (including a chapter titled “A Ham Hock Don’t Call for Help”), it is Bragg’s ode to his ancestors and is told—almost fiction-like but not quite—starting with tales of his great granddaddy at the turn of the last century. This book is a family tribute. And while you read it, you wish Bragg was in your family. He marks the calendar by documenting his mother’s people and the stories around their food—stories like the shooting out of someone’s teeth, or the praying and singing away of a cyclone, or the meal of possum that restored health.  Bragg tells the tales of blue-collar workers and their families and their community through his mother’s eyes and memory.

“She cooked, in her first eighty years, more than seventy thousand meals, as basic as hot buttered biscuits with pear preserves or muscadine jelly, as exotic as tender braised beef tripe in white milk gravy, in kitchens where the only ventilation was the banging of the screen door,” writes Bragg. “She cooked for people she’d just as soon have poisoned, and for the loves of her life.”

This is a collection of stories—hilarious, poignant, personal—about how generations of Bragg’s extended family survived from meal to meal. That it’s peppered with detailed recipes such as pan-roasted pig’s feet makes it even more insightful and delicious.

“It was a hard life,” Bragg notes his mother saying. “But we ate like we were somebody a good bit of the time.”

Rick Bragg will be at the 2018 Louisiana Book Festival on Nov. 10 at the State Capitol. Go to for more information.