How to cook a possum: Rick Bragg on his momma’s table

In Margaret Bragg’s kitchen, the food of poverty never went out of style.

She is a wizard with fatback, turnip greens, sow-belly and tripe, and she’s not impressed with the fact that the rest of the world has caught up with her, and that catfish is served at the most fashionable tables. “She wouldn’t care what the rest of the world was doing,” said Rick Bragg.

What she cared about was finding delicious. “She cooked, most of all, to make it taste good,” the author writes, “to make every chipped melamine plate a poor man’s banquet.”

“The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table” is part cookbook, part memoir. Bragg will speak about the new work at 7 p.m., Thursday, at the Elm Street Cultural Arts Village in Woodstock, and, this weekend, in Athens and Carrollton.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution caught up with Bragg by telephone as he made his way east from Greenwood, Miss., to Memphis, Tenn., to talk about food and family.

Readers of “All Over But The Shoutin’” and “Ava’s Man” and “Prince of Frogtown” will recognize his impoverished North Alabama family, and especially his indelible mother.

This is not a cookbook written by a foodie. His mother yearned for a daughter to pass on her skills, he writes, but “instead, she got three nitwit boys who would eat a bug on a bet and still cannot do much more than burn a weenie on a sharp stick.”

But the past five years have been a steep climb for his mother, contending with cancer, surgery and chemotherapy.

“She’s 81 years old, and believe me she’s probably cooking something right now,” he said on Monday afternoon, speaking from a motel room near Memphis. “I’m not going to lie, she’s more frail, but she is still working.”

Bragg has spent much of those five years driving his mother back and forth to doctors, living in her North Alabama country home, buying groceries and watching her cook. He realized it was time to interview her about the food that has contributed to his none-too-svelte profile.

The problem for a potential writer of a cookbook was immediately apparent: She’s never read a recipe nor used a measuring spoon.

“Momma doesn’t give you a scientific recipe,” he said. “We tried to do that. ‘Some of this.’ What in the hell is ‘some?’ What kind of measurement is ‘some?’ And there’s a difference between a ‘dab’ and a ‘daub.’ And then there’s ‘you know hon, just a little, a smidgeon.’ It’s hard as hell to do. The problem was not the stories. We had the stories. We have always had the stories. I won’t live long enough to exhaust the stories, but the mathematical translation?”

No way.

Some of the recipes seem chosen to trigger a particular scene. An elegy on baked possum, for example, stimulates a memory of the beautiful song of a coonhound named Joe and frosty evenings hunting with his brothers

“The recipes were things people might actually want to cook,” he said. “I don’t expect people to be running down possums, but that recipe needed to be in there because my Aunt Juanita, who is still with us, is a great source, and it was one of her favorite things.”

Related: Other cookbook authors in Atlanta.

Amongst the stories are some wonderful comfort food recipes, especially comforting for those who need a few extra pounds on their frames. Boiled potatoes come with a stick of butter. Pinto beans need ham hock and trimmings for flavor.

Some of the instructions are just common sense, he said. For short ribs, potatoes and onions, “get some fatty short ribs and watch your liquid. You don’t want to drown them, you don’t want stew. You want something better than stew.”

And keep in mind that good food is good medicine. When Bragg was visiting his mother in the hospital once, she told him, “If I can just get home, I’ll cook me some poke salad, and I’ll cure myself.”

Rick Bragg, 7 p.m., Thursday, at the Elm Street Cultural Arts Village, 8534 Main Street, Woodstock; $30; ticket includes signed copy of “The Best Cook in the World.” Also, 6-7 p.m. Saturday, Avid Bookshop, 493 Prince Ave., Athens; free; book purchase required for a place in signing line. And 2-3 p.m. Sunday, Carrollton Center for the Arts, 251 Alabama St., Carrollton; $15; books available for $13.95.

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