• Lauren

A Book Recommendation for Southern Comfort: The Best Cook in the World

The fact that I’ve even started reading The Best Cook in the World is something of an achievement. After (finally!) polishing off the last installment of the Odd Thomas series, I started reading a thriller novel that I’ll leave nameless. It’s a chunky grocery store paperback I purchased on a whim whilst procuring STAY AT HOME OR ELSE provisions. About 20 pages in or so, I realized the premise is far darker than I could stand right then. And so, in typical stubborn fashion, I picked up and put down the book about 10 times, never advancing more than a page or so. I’d say to myself “you’re just not in the mood for it right now, but you’ll feel like it later.” I never felt like it.

If there’s one happiness habit from Gretchen Rubin that I hope to fully embrace someday, it’s “stop reading a book if I don’t enjoy it.” Such a simple thing, but an obstacle for us folks who wear their “reader” identity as a badge of honor. We act as if we’ll lose our club membership if we leave even a single book unread. Defiantly, I put the book away. I turned to Amazon to hunt for something less intense. A historical fiction novel or a biography might be nice, I thought. When The Best Cook in the World came up in my search, it was a no-brainer. Highly rated, memoir style tales of a southern cook- it fit my criteria and provided the bonus of a focus on food, a constant interest of mine. The title refers to the author, Rick Bragg’s, mother, Margaret Bragg, a cook, not a chef, which is a distinction of great importance to her. She’s a southern, no-nonsense type whose most prized possession isn’t any fancy kitchen gadget, but her trusty old cast iron skillet.

I’m only three chapters in and the book has already proven to be everything I’d hoped for and more. The mood is sufficiently light, yes, but also deeply comforting in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Margaret reminds me of my Granny who passed away in 2016. Though I’ve never heard anything to suggest that Granny was a good cook, Margaret’s spunky attitude and distrust of anything (or anyone) made after ~1940 feels so very familiar. In the midst of COVID-19, an unprecedented global pandemic, reading the toughened, steady outlook of someone possessing the wisdom of experience is both humbling and reassuring. The book feels very blue-collar and working class. There’s a pervasive attitude of “make-do” that sounds so practical at this moment in time. I imagine Margaret was a waste-not-want-not home keeper, something I especially aspire to in this current climate of financial uncertainty. She seems to have acquired the skill of making much from little, from, well, having little. While Margaret rebukes recipes and denies the value of cookbooks, she’s always acutely aware of her inventory, cooks deliberately, and makes every ingredient count. I wish I could call my Granny right now. I’d like to ask her what she thinks about this Coronavirus mess. I want her tell me that my generation is soft, that she’s seen much worse, and that toilet paper has gotten too expensive anyway. On the other hand, it’s possible she’d say we’re all doomed, that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. She was a bit of a pessimist, after all. Even if it were the latter, she’s been saying we’re all doomed as long as I can remember, probably dating back to when they started charging more than $2.50 to get into Disneyland, so in her way, she’d be saying “it’s just another day.” Either potential response brings a smile to my face. I may not be able to call Granny, but scattered through the pages of grit(s) and gravy, I hear her voice. I followed my nose to Margaret’s kitchen and it’s feeding my soul exactly what it craved.