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.