Joni Woolf: Rick Bragg on cooking, other things

Published 2:43 pm Saturday, March 9, 2019

ATR readers will recognize the name of Rick Bragg, son of Alabama who rose to fame at the New York Times, then came home to Alabama where he belonged. And stayed there. And has been writing for more years than he wants to admit about Southern culture, and food, and his interesting family members. He has written eight books, including the acclaimed “All Over but the Shoutin’ — a tribute to Alabama and his extraordinary mother. among other things. Now he has written the ultimate tribute to her entitled “The Best Cook in the World.” It is a moving, entertaining insider’s view of Margaret Bragg, a remarkable woman who has never owned a cookbook or written down a recipe. She just knows.
“I am not a chef,” she says. “I am a cook.” And she proves it by cooking, making it up as she goes along. Most of us could not do this. But most of us did not grow up in the hardscrabble backwaters of our neighboring state, where Margaret Bragg paid attention to an older generation of seasoned cooks. “It’s all I’ve ever been real good at, and people always bragged on my cooking … you know, ‘cept those who don’t know what’s good.” As a girl, she sat in the kitchen of old women as they talked “about their sorry old men and their good food and the good Lord, and they would cook. And I just paid attention, and I done what they done …”
In spite of having no recipes written down, she has them stored in her brain, and can tell her son how she puts ingredients together. The following example is a recipe she allowed her son to write down, and he has shared it with us readers (there are 70 such recipes in the book):

Spareribs Stewed in Butter Beans
1 pound butter beans [dried beans]
8 to 10 meaty spareribs
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
7 to 8 cups of water (or more if needed)
HOW TO COOK IT (in Rick Bragg’s words)
As with pinto beans, you have to set some time aside for picking through the butter beans. Find a good chair, and tell your worrisome, telephone addicted kin that you are getting a CAT scan and will not be able to talk for a while. The beans should be white to cream-colored; remove and discard anything superstitious. It is not necessary to soak the butterbeans beforehand, though they will cook faster if you do. The whole point of this dish is to cook it slowly, slowly, and let the simple ingredients and flavors mingle. This is an easy dish. In a large pot, combine all the ingredients, and bring to a good boil for just a few minutes. Then simmer for about 2 hours, being sure to stir occasionally. The rib meat should be tender, if not falling off the bone, and the beans should be soft but not mushy, though some breakage is unavoidable. You can make them more creamy by taking a potato masher or large spoon and breaking up some of the beans, or even adding milk or cream at the end, as many people do with white beans, but my mother thinks this is foolish. Cook ‘em right and they will be perfect in texture. If you have a good butcher, or are good with a saw and have good insurance, you can cut the ribs in two before cooking (they are more convenient to dish up and cook if cut in two), but some cooks prefer whole ribs, for the way they look on the plate. Some chefs believe in searing the ribs in a little fat, along with the diced onion, before adding them to the beans to slow-cook. We are not them. “There just ain’t no need. The pork fat is where the taste is, and the fat will render into the beans, drop by drop, as it all cooks together.” Amen.
“Go get me some good ribs and I’ll make it for you,” Bragg’s mother told him. So, he did, and “of course it was delicious as it sounds.” Bragg says it reminds him of a dish he had in a French restaurant in New York City, a cassoulet of beans, ham, and sausage. It was called French country food and cost $50. “Nothing with ‘country’ in its definition should cost fifty dollars,” Bragg wrote, but it was delicious, “almost as good as the one his mother made for ten dollars.”
The book is not only entertaining and charming. It informs the reader of a way of life that has almost disappeared from our culture. Reading Rick Bragg is always a joy and this one is like icing on the cake. Toward the end of the book, he says “As a man who has failed even at carrying food, let alone at cooking it, I believe now and always will that what my mother and my people do in a kitchen is nothing short of beautiful, and I get to say.”
The recipes will inspire, amaze, frighten, entertain. The language will keep you smiling long after the last page is turned. This is Rick Bragg at his best.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at