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Special Sauce with Ed Levine

Serious Eats' podcast Special Sauce enables food lovers everywhere to eavesdrop on an intimate conversation about food and life between host and Serious Eats founder Ed Levine and his well-known/famous friends and acquaintances both in and out of the food culture.
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Now displaying: July, 2018
Jul 25, 2018

On this week's episode of Special Sauce, the Pulitzer Prize–winning but ridiculously down-to-earth Rick Bragg digs deep into his mom, the subject of his latest book, The Best Cook in the World.

For one thing, Bragg's mother was not in the least interested in trendsetting: "Well, the first time she ever heard the term 'farm-to-table,' the puzzled look on her face—like, 'Well, how else are they gonna do it?...' They had it back in her day, too. They called it a flatbed truck."

Bragg's mother wasn't initially keen on the idea of a book about her cooking.

"Well, it wasn't that she didn't so much like the idea of telling the stories of her food. She didn't like the ego it would require to call it The Best Cook in the World.... When I told her she said, 'What would you even call it?' And I told her the title, and she said, 'I wasn't even the best cook that lived on our road.' And I said, 'Well, that may be true, but calling it The Third Best Cook on Roy Webb Road don't sing.' So here we are."

But a diagnosis of cancer and the ensuing years of treatment helped break down his mother's reluctance, and strengthened Bragg's own resolve:

"I began to think about what would be lost, but I did not want to imagine a world without my momma in it.... I would not do this when my momma was gone, I just couldn't bear to do it. I had to do it while she was looking me in the face."

Did Bragg's mother, who spent many years working in kitchens of all kinds, including restaurant kitchens, consider herself a chef? "She did but she.... The word 'chef,' and believe me, I understand the culture, and I understand the hierarchy. I mean, they insist on being called 'Chef' if they're a chef, and I get it, and I understand the importance. But to her, she went about it with the same blue-collar notion that she went about everything else, and she saw it as the best thing that she could do...with the limited resources she had, for the people she loved. Some people sew, some people kill themselves in a factory. My momma cooked."

And, he said, it was both the only thing she thought she could do well and a marker of prestige. "I never will forget her telling me, 'Your Aunt Jo can dance, and your Aunt Juanita can climb a tree like a man. But all I could ever do was cook.' And she said that not with any...in any kind of self-pitying way, but with a great deal of fierce pride. A cook holds an almost...and it's not just my culture, it holds an almost magical place in the eyes of, especially, working folks, and I've seen it in the Dominican Republic, seen it in Cuba, seen it in Miami and the Cuban community there, seen it in places all over the world. The cook is kinda like a high priest of good living."

There's truth and magic at work when Bragg talks about his mother and her cooking. Listen to this week's episode of Special Sauce, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Jul 17, 2018
We don't often get a chance to have a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist on Special Sauce–Jonathan Gold was the first–so I jumped at the chance to have Rick Bragg, one of my favorite writers of all time, on the podcast. Of course, Rick isn't known as a food or a cookbook writer, but his new book The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma's Table, is both an incredibly evocative portrait of his mother and a collection of his mother's recipes. 
 
Parts of the book read like poetry, so I asked Rick to read one of my favorite paragraphs to give readers unfamiliar with his work a taste of what they've been missing: "I did not know then like I know now that my momma never ate until we were done, or maybe I did know but was too young to understand why. I did not know then that she picked all the meat out of the soup and stew and put it on our plates. I did not hear her scraping pots, pans, and skillets to make her own plate after her three little pigs ate most of what we had, but I can still see her sliding the bones off plates and gnawing them clean after we were done saying how she just liked the meat close to the bone, that we just didn't know what we were missing. It's not that we were starving, just that the quality of life for her children inched up a little if she did without."
 
Though his family was literally dirt-poor, Rick says meals at his family table were most often filled with joy: "Well, it was the best time of day. It was the greatest time of day. My people don't think I have a real job because I don't get dirty, or usually I don't. I don't get dirty. If you have a real job, you have to comb the cotton lint out of your hair or you have to get some Octagon soap and wash the grease off your hands. I think they think I cut out paper dolls for a living or something delicate and easy. For those folks, my folks, the reward was, especially the worldly one, was being able to come home, they ate their lunch out of a sack mostly, but being able to come home, and it might be very plain. It might be beans and cornbread, sliced tomatoes, maybe sliced onion, maybe some greens. It may be something from a garden or it may be ... In wintertime, it was maybe fried potatoes and white beans, but it was savory, and it was good."
 
I could give you many more of Rick's poetic utterances, but then you would miss the joy of listening to the man say them himself. Although of course you can always just read the transcript, but I strongly urge you to make the time to check out both this week's and next week's Special Sauce episodes. They'll be worth your while, I promise. 
Jul 12, 2018
In part two of my terrific conversation with James Beard Award-winning pitmaster Rodney Scott, we discuss the fact that barbecue, like jazz, was developed by African-Americans, and yet most well-known pitmasters are white.
 
"I respect any human being, man or woman, that takes the approach to be a pitmaster...Black, white, tall, short, it don't matter," Rodney said. "I see dedicated people who stuck to what they believed in. Kept trying at it, kept going, and they finally got something recognized, the same way I got recognized...So my whole thing is whether that person is white or black, it doesn't matter. If you're working hard and producing a product that you're proud of that's good, that's gonna speak for itself regardless of who you are."
 
As we were talking, Rodney confessed to a few guilty pleasures, one of which might surprise some people. "McDonald’s. I go to the window, pretend I'm on the phone, and I cover up my brand. Keep my head turned away from the window. And I order happy meals so that they think I'm picking it up for my nine-year-old." 
 
Rodney was featured on the late Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations, and Rodney talked a bit about some of the advice Bourdain gave him. "He basically said, 'Rodney, don't eat the sh*t sandwich...Don't ever let the producers and the fame of people tell you how to do your thing.' He says, 'You do what you want. If they start telling you what to do, don't accept it. Stand behind what you believe in.'" 
 
To find out what else Rodney believes in, check out this week's Special Sauce. 
 
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The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
Jul 6, 2018

Barbecue pitmasters are amongst our nation's greatest storytellers—they learn that all-important skill tending to their 'cue all night. But Rodney Scott, South Carolina pitmaster and James Beard Award winner, might just have the best story of all to tell, as you'll hear on this week's Special Sauce. 

When Scott was growing up, his family started making barbecue one day a week at their general store in the tiny town of Hemingway, South Carolina, two hours' drive from Charleston. As Rodney tells it, "We did whole-hog barbecue sandwiches like most gas stations do hot dogs. It was just an extra income, just a quick side meal. And we did it on Thursdays." But demand gradually grew until, finally, the barbecue itself became the core business, and with that shift came a huge increase in the hard work of producing it, all of it shared by young Rodney, an only child.
 
It started with cutting down trees and splitting wood to make the charcoal. "If we did two hogs, or four hogs, whatever, we had to have enough wood to get it done," Scott told me. "And my dad would never let you lay around in the afternoons. You got off the school bus, you did homework, you went to work.... Of course, after cutting wood, you had to load it, haul it, help unload at the barbecue pit. And if you were out of school, you had to cook.... My high school graduation, I'm 17 years old, I walk out and speak to my dad, hold up my diploma, and he says, 'You need to be at the barbecue pit at 12 o'clock tonight.'"
 
After he graduated, the work became even more intense. "Three nights a week, we worked all night long. We had guys there in the daytime, and I was there all night. So being there all night, you had to keep the fire going to keep enough hot coals to fire up your hogs.... You had to have enough coals to fire anywhere from two to 15 hogs, because you never knew how many you were going to cook."
 
Not only did this upbringing develop Scott's lifelong love for barbecue, the discipline and work ethic it instilled in him clearly assisted in his journey from driving a tractor as a six-year-old kid on a tobacco farm, to cooking for John T. Edge, to opening his own restaurant in Charleston and winning the Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast.
 
To get the whole story, you're just going to have to listen to the episode.

You won't be disappointed, only inspired.

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The full transcript for this week's episode can be found here at Serious Eats.
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