We Gather Life, Only to find…. someone I’ve come to call my friend, after reading one of my cooking posts, suggested a book that she thought I’d not only enjoy but relate to. “The Best Cook In The World” by Rick Bragg. I googled it of course and read an excerpt of which I knew immediately, it’d be a book that I wish I had written.
I’ve since ordered it and it arrived yesterday. I’m only a few page in but only because I’ve re-read those first pages repeatedly. There are books I’ve found that possess such beautiful language, almost poetic… lyrical, it almost begs to be spoken aloud. As I read, I’d catch my lips silently forming the words. It’s soul rich.
Since she was eleven years old, even if all she had to work with was neck bones, peppergrass, or poke salad, she put good food on a plate. She cooked for dead-broke uncles, hungover brothers, shade-tree mechanics, faith healers, dice shooters, hairdressers, pipe fitters, crop dusters, high-steel walkers, and well diggers. She cooked for ironworkers, Avon ladies, highway patrolmen, sweatshop seamstresses, fortune-tellers, coal haulers, dirt-track daredevils, and dime-store girls. She cooked for lost souls stumbling home from Aunt Hattie’s beer joint, and for singing cowboys on the AM radio. She cooked, in her first eighty years, more than seventy thousand meals, as basic as hot buttered biscuits with pear preserves or muscadine jelly, as exotic as tender braised beef tripe in white milk gravy, in kitchens where the only ventilation was the banging of the screen door. She cooked for people she’d just as soon have poisoned, and for the loves of her life.
She cooked for the rich ladies in town, melting beef short ribs into potatoes and Spanish onions, another woman’s baby on her hip, and sleepwalked home to feed her own boys home-canned blackberries dusted with sugar as a late-night snack. She pan-fried chicken in Red’s Barbecue with a crust so crisp and thin it was mostly in the imagination, and deep-fried fresh bream and crappie and hush puppies redolent with green onion and government cheese. She seasoned pinto beans with ham bone and baked cracklin’ cornbread for old women who had tugged a pick sack, and stewed fat spareribs in creamy butter beans that truck drivers would brag on three thousand miles from home. She spiked collard greens with cane sugar and hot pepper for old men who had fought the Hun on the Hindenburg Line, and simmered chicken and dumplings for mill workers with cotton lint still stuck in their hair. She fried thin apple pies in white butter and cinnamon for pretty young women with bus tickets out of this one-horse town, and baked sweet-potato cobbler for the grimy pipe fitters and dusty bricklayers they left behind. She cooked for big-haired waitresses at the Fuzzy Duck Lounge, shiny-eyed pilgrims at the Congregational Holiness summer campground, and crew-cut teenage boys who read comic books beside her banana pudding, then embarked for Vietnam.
She cooked, most of all, to make it taste good, to make every chipped melamine plate a poor man’s banquet, because how do you serve dull food to people such as this?
Though ambling through his memories, it is my own I see. I see my grandma Charlotte standing in the kitchen in her house dress. The window and screen door open to catch a breeze. My Lord, how did we survive without air conditioning, in Corpus Christi no less? If the heat doesn’t kill you, the humidity will! She was an old world woman. Every meal was cooked and served at a set table. And afterwards, the table cleared and dishes washed by hand in a hot soapy sink, towel dried and put away.
Grandma Charlotte holding me at at my great grandmothers table.
In those days, candy or a soda pop was a once in awhile special treat, not an everyday part of your diet like today, so when she made fudge, it was an occasion! There was no marshmallow creme in fudge making! What nonsense! No, she made real honest to goodness fudge and there was nothing like it in the world.
Fudge making was an event too. All the ladies (my mom, great aunt Harriet, aunt Lou) all sitting around the table. Grandma would boil that goodness into perfection, without dropping into water or using a thermometer, just instictually knowing when it was right. She’d then sit at the table and beat the fudge with a wooden spoon until tired then pass it to the next.
Real Old Fashioned Fudge
2 cups white sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup milk
pinch of salt
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grease an 8×8 inch square baking pan. Set aside.
Combine sugar, cocoa, salt and milk in a medium saucepan. Stir to blend, then bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer. Do not stir again.
Cheat if you must: Place candy thermometer in pan and cook until temperature reaches 238 degrees F(114 degrees C). If you are not using a thermometer, then cook until a drop of this mixture in a cup of cold water forms a soft ball. Feel the ball with your fingers to make sure it is the right consistency. It should flatten when pressed between your fingers.
Remove from heat. Add butter or margarine and vanilla extract. Roll up your sleeves and stir the mixture with a wooden spoon until it starts to look more matte than glossy. This takes some elbow grease, stick to it and consider it your workout for the day!
As soon as most of the gloss is gone quickly pour the fudge into your dish. Let it cool and cut it into pieces.
Who is your ” Best Cook In The World” and your favorite dish?