“A Ham Hock Don’t Call for Help”
This hilarious quote appears in the recently published book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg titled, The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table. It comes from two little hellions talking about whether to steal a ham hock or a live chicken and, ultimately one clinches it by saying, “Well, a ham hock don’t call for help.”
This 485-page tome, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 2018 is a terrific read. I discovered this author in the nineties when he wrote All Over But the Shoutin’ – a marvelous record of his childhood in Alabama that was harrowing, cruel – and yet triumphant.
The Best Cook in the World is a delectable, rollicking food memoir, cookbook (over 70 recipes) plus a loving tribute to the South and its vanishing history. Talkin’ ain’t seein’ so I’m going to quote directly from this must-read book.
“She never used a cookbook, not in her whole life. 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.”
PLAIN FOOD, WELL SEASONED
“In a South that no longer seems to remember its heart, our food may be the best part left. There is a reason why many black Southerners – and some white ones, like my mother – still call this kind of cooking soul food, because it transcends the pain and struggle of the everyday, a richness for a people without riches.”
“My mother laughed out loud when she first heard the term ‘farm-to-table.’ They had it in her day, too; they called it a flatbed truck. She knows her food is not the healthiest, yet her people live long, long lives; those not killed by gunfire, moonshine or machines.
A WELL-EQUIPPED KITCHEN
“Momma does not own a measuring cup. She does not own a measuring spoon. She cooks in dabs, and smidgens, and tads, and a measurement she mysteriously refers to as ‘you know, hon, just some.’ She does not own a mixer or a blender. There is a 40-year-old lopsided sifter for her flour, and a hand-cranked can opener.
The recipes in the book are a marvel of directness and simplicity. I think there’s a lesson to be learned here. On page 89 there’s one for “Cornbread” that starts with a seven-line description. This leads to: WHAT YOU WILL NEED and lists six ingredients. The HOW TO COOK IT is last.
Every recipe is set up like this and I love it. Do you know how many recipes I’ve passed by the minute I see 10 or more ingredients? On page 116 there’s one for “Chicken Gravy” and on the next page there’s another for “Mashed Potatoes” where she puts (aside from salt, milk, butter) a teaspoon of mayonnaise in. Since I’m always making mashed potatoes with salt/milk/butter – and consider adding finely chopped chives the height of culinary creativity – I will definitely put the mayo in.
You’ll find Rick Bragg’s books on Amazon – great to take on a trip.
COMING TO VISIT US AT RATHBONE?
To get in the mood for New Orleans CLICK HERE to listen to “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals.
Bob Dylan recorded this song, but The Animals made it a worldwide phenomenon. Then Martin Scorsese used it in his movie Casino for a ‘wow’ ending. No one knows who wrote it, but everyone including me, seems to love it.