My favorite writer in the world has released a new book, “The Best Cook in the World, Tales from my Momma’s Table.” My copy, a Mother’s Day gift from Erin and Ben, is even autographed “For Karen, Here at Home—Rick Bragg.”
There are several earnest reviews on the back cover, but the one by the Miami Herald stabs me in my jealous heart. “Bragg writes like his grandfather drank…He cuts loose with wonderful flowing descriptive floods…that can cripple another writer with envy.” As I sit here at my desktop attempting to squeeze out a reasonably entertaining blog post, I am crippled— partially paralyzed— by Mr. Bragg’s southern fables of food, poverty, and family folklore. No other author could write thirteen hilarious pages about his mother’s futile fifty-year search for a tomato that was “fit to eat.” No one else could turn the shame of receiving a box of government “commodities” into the proudest day of the month. He wrote, “Other people, people who had the misfortune not to be poor, coveted our cheese.” Do yourself a favor and read every delicious word of it, especially about Aunt Sis’s chicken and dressing and the day she shot her husband in the teeth. That particular chapter speaks to me in frightening ways because I’ve considered doing the same thing myself.
I haven’t eaten a meal cooked by my mother in probably twenty years. She passed away in 2006, but she divorced her kitchen long before that. Maybe she forgot how to cook or maybe she figured out that if she didn’t do it, somebody else would. Either way, her days in the kitchen were finished. She probably wasn’t one of the best cooks in the world, but she was the best cook in the world I knew. She could fry the most delightful Sunday chicken this side of Pearl’s Diner. She would buy a whole fryer at the grocery store and cut it up with a wood-handled butcher knife that was so razor sharp and thin that my daddy could have shaved with it. Fried chicken was always reserved for Sundays except once a year the night before we would go on vacation, she would fry one and stick it in the refrigerator to pack in the ice chest the next morning. Long before any chicken ever got up, Daddy would hit the floor and the sound of his feet would echo throughout our little wooden house. He didn’t have to wake us because we had slept with our clothes on and one eye open. Daddy’s rule was if you left for vacation after the sun came up, you might as well not go at all. I guess he assumed that Florida was going to close the borders and padlock the doors once the sun went down. In his defense, back in those days finding a motel vacancy was a game of chance. Of course, online booking sites were still in the realm of science fiction. The most high-tech item in our house was a hefty, black rotary phone that was hooked up to an eight-party line—useless really except for the intrigue of eavesdropping on our neighbors. If we started searching for a empty room in late afternoon, the chances were slim to none of finding one with a swimming pool. Vacationing at motels without swimming pools, was actually worse than staying home. If we stayed at home, at least we could cool off from the Mississippi heat with the water hose and a foot tub of water. Anyway, along about 10 A.M., with Mississippi in the rear view mirror and our stomachs grumbling for cold fried chicken, white Sunbeam loaf bread and ice-cold Coca-Colas, we would search for a spot to picnic. The perfect setting was a roadside park with concrete tables and ants crawling all over our feet. But, we weren’t too proud to pull off onto a wide place on the side of the road and picnic straight out of the trunk.
Perhaps the closest thing to family folklore and intentional bodily harm in my mamma’s kitchen, was the day she went to make Daddy a from scratch three-layer yellow cake with chocolate icing. She pulled the baked layers out of the oven and turned them out onto plates to cool. Momma got distracted with her petunias or something in the yard, but returned a while later to make the icing. She took her rubber spatula to the icing and began to spread it across the first layer. The cake totally collapsed in the middle leaving nothing but a crispy dam of crust and a tiny pond of chocolate icing in the middle. The same thing happened with layers two and three. She was thinking that she had forgotten to put in the baking powder when she noticed my oldest sister Charlotte trying to sneak past her and out the back porch door. She grabbed her by the arm, suspecting that Charlotte had something to do with the collapsed cakes. While momma was out in the yard, Charlotte had turned the layers over and eaten the insides out of all three leaving a thin layer on top that wouldn’t hold icing. She then turned them back over, hoping Momma wouldn’t notice. Charlotte was a smart girl who did a very dumb thing that day. Momma was so outdone with her oldest daughter that she picked up a plate with the collapsed cake and cracked it clean in two right on top of Charlotte’s skull. Momma immediately regretted her anger when she realized the broken plate was one of her favorites.
Although we weren’t the fortunate folks who directly received government commodities, we did on occasion benefit from them through the bartering system. This was long before native Americans starting building gambling casinos on every reservation. Needless to say, the residents of the reservation struggled sometimes and often traded hand-made baskets or their commodities for more healthy and varied fare. The Choctaw Indian reservation outside of Sandersville was just an easy walk from where I grew up. Both of my grandmothers had a cordial relationship with many of the women on the reservation. One of the women showed up at my Mama Black’s front porch. She was doubled over and was obviously in some type of gastric distress. In one crook of her arm she carried a five pound block of cheese. In the other crook of her arm, there was a large can of peanut butter. As the woman held out the cheese and peanut butter she said in broken English, “Miz Helen. You trade me some your garden for dis?” Shaking her head, she all but cried, “Chokum my guts.” So, Miz Helen gladly traded some items from her garden that offered a bit more fiber. And, for a while (with a little help from Milk of Magnesia) we lived high on the hog eating the best idea the government ever had.
Looking back, my mother never actually taught me how to cook anything. Mainly because I wasn’t interested in learning. Cooking was learned by osmosis or necessity and as I grew older, out of the desire to impress my family with traditional southern food. Somehow, I’ve managed to replicate her potato salad, which my friend Dale Keyes says reminds him for the world of his mother’s and is therefore the best in the world. She didn’t teach me to make her biscuits that were always fluffy on the inside and had a crisp brown crust on the bottom that was so good for sopping up Blackburn’s Syrup on a cold winter morning. In fact, the first decent pan of biscuits I ever cooked came along just a few years ago on a rare snowy day. The key to good biscuits is to handle the dough like a lady. Don’t manhandle it or the cooked biscuits could double as skeet. My husband thought they were so superb he told me to go buy one of those “Lewis Baton” purses that I had been wanting. I never learned to make a coconut meringue pie that was my daddy’s absolute favorite. That man loved a coconut pie better than goats loves briars. She would always pack his black lunch box with a piece of it tightly sealed in a triangle shaped Tupperware box. There seems to be a pattern with my cooking and cold weather. Momma always said it was way to hot in the summer to “light” the oven because it would heat up the house to unbearable temperatures. One cold night many, many decades into my marriage, I pulled out my Mississippi Cookbook and whipped up a coconut pie with meringue that made me cry because my daddy wasn’t around to eat a piece. At long last, I was a good cook.
Momma never taught me how to make the perfect pan of cornbread to go along with fresh field peas seasoned with bacon and served with a side of buttery creamed corn. In due time, I learned to cook all that too— with numerous tearful failures. FYI: You can’t cook corn on any setting but the lowest, low heat. If you scorch corn, you might as well throw away the pot because scorched corn turns into a substance akin to concrete. A perfect pan of cornbread must be made with buttermilk and plenty of grease in a seasoned iron skillet in an oven pre-heated to 425 degrees (20 minutes—not one second prematurely or tardy). Do not put even one pinch of sugar in cornbread. It is an abomination that the Lord will not abide and he might strike you dead. She never taught me to make ice box fruitcake, a staple she made every Christmas. The longer that stuff cured in the refrigerator the more addictive it became. I remember threatening my sister with a butter knife warning her not to eat the last piece. She had already eaten more than her fair share, but she ate that last piece anyway while I was on the phone in the other room trying to break through the party line. I could still kill her over that.
Tales and recipes from my momma’s table may not be as colorful or delicious as those from Margaret Bragg’s, but they uniquely belong to my family. I will forever be crippled with envy over Rick Bragg’s prose and always want to kick myself for not being able to put my southern soul into words in such an effortless way. But, I’ll keep plugging away in the kitchen and at my desktop until one fine day some delicious memory of my mother might emerge from my oven prompting some magical words to flow from my own jealous heart.
Karen Clark Rasberry, besides being Erin's mom, is an IPPY-award winning author and realtor in Laurel, Mississippi. When she isn't playing competitive league tennis, you'll find she and Erin's dad at the beach with their pup Hooper or playing on the banks of their lake with their grandson and granddaughter, Walker and Helen.