The following are quotations from The Best Cook in the World, which drew me in immediately with its humor and evocations of family dinners year past. The book is a tribute to the author’s mother, consisting of some of her most memorable recipes, and the stories attached to them. “Good stuff always has a story”, she said.
She never cooked from a written recipe of any kind, and never wrote down one of her own. She cooked with ghosts at her sure right hand, and you can believe that or not. The people who taught her the secrets of Southern, blue-collar cooking are all gone now, and they did not cook from a book, either; most of them did not even know how to read and write.
“Gettin’ old ain’t easy,” she told me, as she passed seventy-nine, “but it’s best not to try and fight it too much. You know how I live with bein’ old? I just don’t look in the mirror, ’cept when I part my hair.”
The past is where we go when we are helpless; the past, no matter what the psychiatrists say, can’t really hurt you much more than it already has, not like the future, which comes at you like a train around a blind curve.
You learn, if you live long enough down here, not to push too much against what these old, hardheaded people believe. If an old woman tells you there is magic in an iron pot, you ought not smile at that.
In a South that no longer seems to remember its heart, our food may be the best part left.
She knows her food is not the healthiest, yet her people live long, long lives, those not killed by gunfire, moonshine, or machines.
She believes a person learns to cook by stinging her hands red with okra, singeing her knuckles on a hot lid, and nicking her fingers on an ancient knife as she cuts up a chicken, because a whole chicken tastes better than one dissected in a plant and trucked in from Bogalusa. You learn by tasting and feeling and smelling and listening and remembering, and burning things now and then, and singing the right songs.
Electricity was, she concedes, also a fine idea. But she would like to meet the man who invented the telephone, she says, and smack him a good one.
She knew that affordable, simple Southern food had turned the corner to banality when she saw that a chain restaurant had introduced a barbecue sauce purportedly flavored with moonshine. Moonshine, as any Southerner not born at a cotillion knows, tastes like kerosene. Men did not drink moonshine for its bouquet, but because they wanted to dance in the dirt, howl at the moon, and marry their relations.
She does not cook chitlin’s, because she knows what God made them to do.
People like to talk about the emptiness of the great deserts or the endless plains or the frozen places, but a desolate dirt road in the mountain South, in a forest of black pines, can be one of the most lonesome places on earth. There is an almost unnerving dark in the tunnels of trees, where even people who have lived a lifetime here find themselves imagining the silliest things.
FIRST OFF, we might as well agree that three o’clock in the morning is a bad time to take a hog for a drive.
I had not known, as I began this book, how often larceny would figure into the narrative of our recipes. It is a little sad, I suppose. I could wish that were not so, but I could also wish for a Duesenberg and would still be tooling around town in a Toyota.