Consider the Possum

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table BY Rick Bragg. Knopf. Hardcover, 512 pages. $28.

The cover of The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table

It felt inevitable that in Rick Bragg’s new food memoir I would come across a recipe instruction like this one: “If you want crispier possum, bake uncovered for about 30 minutes.” Before I started reading, I’d checked in with a Southern friend, who immediately proclaimed, unprompted, that if there wasn’t a chapter on possum in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table (Knopf, $29), it basically didn’t qualify as a book about Southern food. There was no way that Bragg, lyrical chronicler of twentieth-century life in the foothills of Alabama, where he grew up, was going to offer anything but the real deal. Enter the marsupial.

But the possum recipe does a lot more than just validate the book’s Southern credentials. It’s prefaced by a family story that, like every recipe here, has been passed down through generations. It’s just one of many pieces of lore that lay bare the power of food, even—or especially—for people who often didn’t have much of it. In “Didelphis Virginiana” (the Latin name for the Virginia possum, which serves as the chapter title), the possum works in mysterious ways that even the most fervent prayer mustered by the God-fearing Braggs and Bundrums (his mother Margaret’s people) cannot.

It was the early 1950s, and Bragg’s Aunt Juanita was nineteen years old and suffering from stomach ulcers while staying with the family for whom she worked at the time. “We were all worried,” Bragg’s mother tells him. “She just wouldn’t, couldn’t, eat anything solid. Finally, she come home, but she wasn’t no better.” They had some luck, but not much, with local jack salmon, brought home fresh from the river in their father’s pockets. “And then . . . well, I ain’t sure where that possum came from,” Bragg’s mother says, trailing off in a kind of culinary cliff-hanger. (Though Margaret never made it past elementary school, it’s pretty clear after reading this book, in which she is quoted copiously in prose and recipe directions both, where her Pulitzer Prize–winning son got his knack for telling stories.) Served a meal of possum roasted up with sweet potatoes, Juanita downed the entire animal but for one leg. Then, as the storied auntie herself tells Bragg (who interviewed a uniformly sharp and wise selection of his family members), “I slept like a baby. . . . I didn’t know you could eat yourself well with possum.” As for her sister, she took a hard pass: “‘I ate a sweet potato,’ my mother said, ‘but I was careful not to get no possum on it.’”

It’s a great story, of course, but it’s also a tale that gets directly to the heart of what can make a meal for a family in lean times. “My mother does not believe many modern-day chefs will attempt a recipe for baked possum and sweet potatoes,” Bragg writes. “And the truth is, she never particularly enjoyed the process of preparing one, but it was subsistence cooking when she was a child.” In a book about survival, shot through with love and occasional miracles—if not wonder—every recipe counts, and so the possum is here even if the cook doesn’t care for it.

The Best Cook in the World is, in a sense, a companion volume to All Over but the Shoutin’, Bragg’s memoir of growing up, which sets his mother as the steady point around which all the drinking, anger, poverty, absent fathers, and government cheese revolve. “A lot of families just came to pieces in that time and place and condition,” Bragg writes in that book, “like paper lace in a summer rain.” His family was one of them in some ways, but always, there was a meal on the table thanks to Margaret. “I did not know then that she picked all the meat out of the soup and stew and put it on our plates,” Bragg recalls. “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 liked that meat close to the bone, that we just didn’t know what we were missing. It is not that we were starving, just that the quality of life for her children inched up a little, if she did without.”

Rick Bragg’s mother, Margaret Bragg, ca. 1950s.
Rick Bragg’s mother, Margaret Bragg, ca. 1950s.

There are numerous passages describing meals in All Over but the Shoutin’, and now the means to make all of them, along with their origin stories, are collected in one book, in what amounts to a love letter to Bragg’s mother measured out in tablespoons and cups and oven temperatures. It’s a project about which I suspect Margaret Bragg harbors certain misgivings that she’s too polite to share with her middle son, seeing as she’s a person who calculates amounts in “‘part of a handful’ and ‘a handful’ and ‘a real good handful,’ which,” Bragg writes, “I have come to understand is roughly a handful, part of another handful, and ‘some.’” She believes, as she tells him at one point, that, “A person . . . can’t cook from numbers.” She may have agreed to the book, but she clearly understands herself to be a very different kind of cook from the people who will buy it.

The greatest origin story here isn’t for the Poke Salad, or the Ham and Redeye Gravy, or the Chocolate Pie, or even the Buttered Grits with a Touch of Cheese and Real Biscuits. It’s the story of how Margaret Bundrum Bragg became such a good cook—or at least how her family believes she did. “It is custom here, with a newborn, that when a baby is toted around the house for the first time the child will inherit some of the character and spirit and strength from the kin who carry them around the house,” Bragg writes. It just so happened that the woman who performed that role when Margaret was born, a distant relative from Georgia, swept into the house with a reputation that preceded her. “This was the cook, the woman all the other good blue-collar cooks spoke of without spite or jealousy, because she brought her gifts to them in the worst and best times. . . . It was said that she could bake a coconut cake on a hot flat rock, and her fried chicken was so light and crisp it could lift off the plate and fly.” In this case, she made a feast of meat loaf, scalloped potatoes, and pineapple upside-down cake (all recipes that follow this story) for the recovering mother, then went into the bedroom and removed the baby for that fabled walk around the house, sealing the deal, as Bragg lets his mother tell us with the earnest pragmatism that no doubt got her and her boys through many a tough spell. “‘And I guess,’ my mother said, ‘it explains ever’thing.’ You do not grow up to be just like the person who carried you around the house. You take one thing from them, like the cooking, or maybe two. ‘I did cuss some,’ she said, ‘back before I found the Lord.’”

The word terroir refers to the natural landscape where a wine is made—the composition of the soil, the climate, and other factors that affect certain flavor characteristics. The liquor in The Best Cook in the World tends toward the rough (and often illegal), but it—and all the food, too—has its own kind of terroir. “These recipes and stories come, one by one, from the beautiful, haunted landscape itself,” Bragg writes. “From inside the lunchboxes of men who worked deep in the earth and out in the searing sun, from homemade houseboats in the middle channels of slow rivers, or in the dark, high places as we chased the beautiful sound of our dogs through the hills and pines.”

He’s located the peace in his story, and in his mother’s, and spelled it out for us with the same reverence his family gave the possum that healed Juanita. There’s a sense that time has brought the Braggs, and especially Margaret, not a better understanding of what they value, which was always clear, but the chance, at last, to sit down for a spell and talk about it. Life is easier these days but, nevertheless, not all that different, as Margaret explains. “The thing about cooking is not to get mad at yourself too much. In the old days, if you messed up, you might not have nothin’ to do with for a while. But there ain’t no need to get mad at yourself too much now.” It would be advice worth taking even if it didn’t come as part of a recipe for Cream Sausage Gravy. The fact that it does makes it all the richer.

Melanie Rehak is the author of Eating for Beginners (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).