The taste of the past

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - BOOKS - By Jonathan Kauff­man Jonathan Kauff­man is a San Fran­cisco Chronicle staff writer and the au­thor of “Hip­pie Food: How Back-to-the-Lan­ders, Long­hairs, and Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies Changed the Way We Eat.” Email: jkauff­man@ sfchron­i­cle.com. Twit­ter/In­sta­gram: @jonkau

“She cooked for dead-broke un­cles, hun­gover brothers, shade-tree me­chan­ics, faith heal­ers, dice shoot­ers, hair­dressers, pip­efit­ters, crop dusters, high-steel walk­ers, and well dig­gers,” Rick Bragg writes in his new book, “The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Momma’s Ta­ble.” “She cooked for peo­ple she’d just as soon have poi­soned, and for the loves of her life.”

Over the course of 20 years, Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist, has told the sto­ries of his fam­ily — and, by ex­ten­sion, poor white farm­ers and la­bor­ers in south­ern Ge­or­gia and north­ern Alabama — in a se­ries of fam­ily mem­oirs that in­cludes “All Over But the Shoutin’ ” and “Ava’s Man.”

He re­turns to the Bun­drums and Braggs in “The Best Cook in the World,” a culi­nary mem­oir in­ter­spersed with recipes. The “best cook” of the ti­tle is os­ten­si­bly Bragg’s mother, Mar­garet Bun­drum, born in 1937, a woman who has worn out more than a dozen elec­tric ranges with her cook­ing, and whose skill and fierce opin­ions about food, the au­thor fears, may die with her. None of her three sons minded her cook­ing enough when they were young to ab­sorb the minu­tiae that made it great.

But his mother is al­most more of a Greek cho­rus, a con­tem­po­rary com­men­tary, for most of the mem­oir. Bragg also makes the case that his great­grand­fa­ther Jimmy Jim Bun­drum was the best cook in the world — an acid spill of a man who had aban­doned his wife and abused chil­dren to die and was living in the hills when his son Char­lie came to fetch him home in 1924. Char­lie’s teenage wife, Ava, had not learned how to cook be­fore she got mar­ried, The Best Cook in the World Tales From My Momma’s Ta­ble By Rick Bragg (Knopf; 487 pages; $28.95)

Char­lie ex­plains. Worse still, she re­fused to learn. Char­lie, on the verge of star­va­tion, begged his fa­ther to teach his stub­born, prickly new daugh­ter-in-law how to feed a fam­ily be­fore the cou­ple started theirs.

To cook in ru­ral Alabama in the 1920s, and es­pe­cially through the De­pres­sion, in­volved no con­ve­nience. It meant tend­ing a gi­ant gar­den that could keep a fam­ily alive and scrab­bling to­gether enough money for scant sta­ples like corn­meal and flour. Eat­ing meat, some years, meant hunt­ing for game in the forests or, on oc­ca­sion, an­other fam­ily’s land. Whether stolen or hon­estly raised, a pig was im­me­di­ately salted and smoked in or­der to fla­vor dishes through­out the com­ing months.

In Bragg’s nar­ra­tive, Jimmy Jim, whose task, seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble at first, is re­deemed by the task. He doesn’t just teach Ava the me­chan­ics of cook­ing beans with salt pork or mix­ing to­gether bis­cuits, but also how to taste. More­over, he helps her see why good food is so im­por­tant:

“’But you shouldn’t just have to eat,’ the old man would tell her, and he would say it over and over, across the months and years. “You ort to want to eat. Poor folk ain’t got much more’n that, not these days.”

Ava’s awak­en­ing to fla­vor, in the book, is ac­com­pa­nied by a recipe, passed down to Bragg’s mother, for “But­ter Rolls,” or tiny bis­cuits braised in sweet, spiced milk. The recipe is, in it­self a com­pan­ion story, as Bragg chron­i­cles his mother’s at­tempts to teach him 90 years later how she touches the dough, spices the milk and smells it bak­ing.

The nar­ra­tive shim­mies for­ward through the gen­er­a­tions, and from bis­cuits and poke salad to toasted co­conut pie and cheese­burg­ers: through Ava, who even­tu­ally be­comes a crack cook, to her daugh­ters (there were quite a few), and then to the greataunts, moth­ers-in-law, neigh­bors, sis­ters and the oc­ca­sional male rel­a­tive who taught Mar­garet. All, the au­thor seems to say, were the best cooks in the world.

“The Best Cook in the World” takes on a genre — mem­oir-plus-recipes — that has been ground into a sludge of cliches in the decades since Ruth Re­ichl first pub­lished “Ten­der at the Bone.” Un­like many of those books, the au­thor ad­mits he’s no cook.

It took no more than a few pages for Bragg’s sto­ry­telling to se­duce and to re­al­ize that even his recipes are more story than sci­en­tific formula. Each of his at­tempts to gather details about a new dish sends Mar­garet and her sib­lings off into an­other elab­o­rate yarn, such as the tale of chicken and dressing, which is re­ally the story of how aunt Sis shot the teeth out of her hus­band’s head.

The sto­ries, as much as the por­trait they paint of his fam­ily and their times, are baroque and pro­fane, si­mul­ta­ne­ously moral and amoral, lov­ing and blunt. Bragg, the recipe col­lec­tor, may be hon­or­ing the sim­plest of food, but Bragg the sto­ry­teller knows that every tale is bet­ter for the di­ver­sions and in­con­gru­ous details he lards it with.

Like his pre­vi­ous mem­oirs, “The Best Cook in the World” is more akin to a com­pen­dium of leg­ends, be­jew­eled with details no mor­tal writer could have pi­rated from the past. As he writes, af­ter re­count­ing a par­tic­u­larly tall tale, “It wasn’t true, of course; maybe it was a lit­tle bet­ter than true.”

Un­wit­ting or no, the book en­ters a dis­cus­sion that, in food writ­ing cir­cles, is as ur­gent as the times that sur­round it: What is South­ern food? What should South­ern food be? Who does it be­long to? Pub­lished just one year af­ter the great Michael Twitty’s “The Cook­ing Gene” elo­quently ar­gued the cen­tral role that African food­ways played in making South­ern cui­sine what it was, “The Best Cook in the World” neatly — too neatly — ex­cises black South­ern­ers from Bragg’s culi­nary fam­ily his­tory. (“Down the high­way, in West An­nis­ton, black­owned cafés cooked the same food, the same way, for the same peo­ple, same in al­most every way but color.”)

At the same time, the book brings into this same dis­cus­sion an­other un­der­rep­re­sented voice. Bragg’s mem­oirs have all ad­vo­cated for the no­bil­ity of dirt-poor Ap­palachi­ans. His cook­book makes the case for their food, too: What he de­scribes — what his mother is iras­ci­bly try­ing to con­vey in her be­grudg­ing recipe-shar­ing — is that the sim­plest of sub­sis­tence fare is made tran­scen­dent through care.

Does “The Best Cook in the World” work as a cook­book? Hard to say: For their elab­o­rate­ness, the recipes I made for the afore­men­tioned bis­cuits in cream and a chicken corn­meal por­ridge re­quired my own decades of cook­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to suc­ceed, sub­tly ad­just­ing amounts, tem­per­a­tures and times.

Mar­garet’s recipe for crack­lin’ cornbread — cooked with toasty brown bits of freshly ren­dered fat — is typ­i­cal of the dishes Bragg memo­ri­al­izes. It is a vir­tu­osic dish, and not only be­cause his mother re­fuses to cook it un­til he hunts down pork good enough for her. The recipe is hi­lar­i­ous, painstak­ing and far too daunt­ing to take on. And yet it’s im­pos­si­ble to read with­out aching for a plea­sure I will never ex­pe­ri­ence — and for the au­thor’s own pre­emp­tive grief over a dish he may never taste again.

Michael Lionstar

Rick Bragg

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