Margaret Bragg does not own a single cookbook. She measures in “dabs” and “smidgens” and “tads” and “you know, hon, just some.”Inside cover of The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table
With many of us staying home during the corona virus “Shelter in Place” mandate, we are finding ways to teach our kids some of the skills we learned when we were young — like how to cook good food with just the basic of basic ingredients. But who would have guessed that best-selling author Rick Bragg would be teaching me how to whip up a coconut pie just like his momma did?
The Friends of the Knox County Public Library and indie bookstore Union Ave Books brought Rick Bragg, author of All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, The Prince of Frogtown, and essays I immediately turn to on the last page of each Southern Living, to Knoxville last year. So, you guessed it: I wouldn’t have missed his interview with Appalachian author and cookbook writer Ronni Lundy for the world.
But I was asked to do more by the Friends’ publicity team: make one of his mother’s recipes and record the process for our story.
Now, Margaret Bragg must have been Super Woman, if you ask me. Handling the likes of Rick and his two brothers would try the patience of any dear soul, but she did admit that, holed up in her kitchen, she could find a modicum of sanity “making miracles,” as Bragg said.
She had hoped for a daughter to pass her skills and stories to — that or a thoughtful son, someone worthy of the history, secrets, and lore; 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, and could not bake a passable biscuit even if you handed us one of those whop-’em cans from the Piggly Wiggly and prayed for bread.Rick Bragg, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, p. 7
Even though Bragg was banned from the kitchen, he was able to recall his momma’s best concoctions, complete with recipes and directions, along with his signature tales and teachable moments.
So, it was with pleasure that I attempted Toasted Coconut Pie (recipe below), learning from one of my favorite all-time authors who taught me that ordinary ingredients and extraordinary love and care can make a family stick together . . . well, in more ways than one.
I commenced to follow the instructions step by step, producing one heckuva pie. And it felt good to mix, stir, add more, take away some, then pour into a pie shell and bake. Was it as good as the ones Margaret Bragg threw down in her kitchen? Probably not. But I felt as if I was being taught by a master. “I am not a chef,” she said. “I am a cook.” (The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, p. 5)
But what I really loved was Margaret’s attitude: You really don’t have to be so careful measuring and timing and handling. You just use your gut instinct, and you’ll know when it’s right.
“Some people like a thicker pie,” she [Margaret Bragg] said. “I wouldn’t throw out one, if it got a little . . .”
“Dense,” I [Rick] said.
“Gummy,” she said.
“Come to think of it,” I said, “I like a gummy pie.”
She nodded, pleased to be right again, for the fourteen billionth time.Rick Bragg, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, p. 268
The real fun for me was reading the stories Bragg included in the 34 chapters of the book and half again that number of recipes for good ol’ Southern cookin’ like your grandma might have made: Barbecued Rag Bologna Sandwich Dressed with Shredded Purple Cabbage Slaw, Ham and Redeye Gravy over Fresh Diced Tomato, Cracklin’ Cornbread, Sweet Potato Pie, Pan-Roasted Pig’s Feet (with Homemade Barbecue Sauce), Baked Possum and Sweet Potatoes, Collard Greens with Baked Hog Jowl, and Cornmeal Porridge with Chicken and Watercress.
It’s mighty fine eatin’ with lessons to be learned all around.
“It was a hard life,” she told me once, “but we ate like we were somebody a good bit of the time.”Rick Bragg quoting his mother Margaret in The Best Cook in the World, p. 12.
Thanks, Margaret and Rick Bragg, for letting me — and other readers — in on your life in Alabama as well as teaching me how to make a good Toasted Coconut Pie!
Recipe: Toasted Coconut Pie
“What You Will Need: 3 tablespoons flour, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3 egg yolks, 2 cups whole milk, 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 1 1/4 cups scraped or flaked fresh coconut, and one 9-inch pie shell
“How to Cook It: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine flour, sugar, and salt, and stir in beaten egg yolks, milk, and vanilla flavoring, but not the coconut. Pour into a medium pan and, over medium heat, cook until it just begins to thicken; then stir in the coconut, saving about a good tablespoon. Cook another minute or two to thicken it a bit more, then pour, while still hot, into your pie shell. Sprinkle the rest of the coconut across the top.
“Remember, this is just part of the cooking process. If the mixture has cooked so much it will not pour out of the pan or boiler, congratulations, you have custard, not suitable for pies. Remember, too, to be careful handling the pie shell filled with the hot mixture.
“Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, till it turns a golden color and the coconut on top is toasted. Golden brown may mean the pie is a little too done, and perhaps a little too dense, but, again, that depends on the oven.”
Rick Bragg, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, pp. 268-269
The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table (2018) is published by Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York.
This post is one of a series of one-word prompts for April 2020 called Discover Prompts by WordPress. Enjoy!