Lessons on life and cooking from a woman who's never consulted a recipe | By Rick Bragg

Rick Bragg and His Mother
Rick Bragg and his mother, Margaret Bragg, at her Jacksonville, Alabama, home in September 2015
| Credit: Terry Manier

A person can't cook from a book," she told me, once.

"A person," she said, "can't cook from numbers."

What she meant was, a cook can't just read off ingredients, temperatures, and times, and do the magic she can do with a scorched, ancient, ragged pot holder in her hands. I have tasted her work across half a century, enough to wonder if the old men and women she learned from really were dabbling in some kind of alchemy. The very life itself was the seasoning. You ate your chicken and dumplings with an illegal smile, because sometimes you had to range all the way to a neighbor's coop in the dead of night to procure the principal ingredient. "Chicken tastes better if it's stole," my uncles liked to say, and I used to think they were kidding. Now, I don't know. How, I wonder, would that recipe begin?

One pan cornbread, crumbled

One onion, diced

One chicken, stole

But never, in her long life, has my mother cooked from a recipe. She cooked by instinct, memory, and feel, from scenes and stories, from riverbanks, hog killings, and squirrel hunts. She learned to bake the perfect biscuit as her sister's first child was born, taught by her brother-in-law, a Navy man. She learned Brunswick stew beside a bonfire on the Coosa, just before a gathering of drunken men settled a feud with a hawk-billed knife. Such people will not eat dull food any more than they will tolerate a dull story.

No, Mama never needed any recipes. The craft and ingredients were locked inside her. If I wanted to capture those recipes for the generations to come, I would have to tell the story of a cooking education, to walk through it beside her one skillet, pan, and pinch at a time. But you can't, if you know my mama, compel her to remember. You just have to listen closely, and bide your time.

The song was the last one I expected her to know. We were driving to the doctor's office that morning; it seems like going to the doctor is what we do. We go to the heart doctor, kidney doctor, toe doctor, eye doctor, and a dermatologist she calls "Dr. Butcher." She tells me stories when we are in the car, and she does not have to hurry because she lives 45 minutes and at least one drive-through sausage biscuit away from the closest physician. She likes to get one on the way to the cardiologist. I do not play the radio when we are in the car, because you never know when she will crack the seal on some memory, and I don't want her to have to shout over Merle Haggard to tell about picking highland watercress in 1945. "Cook it in bacon grease," she said, "with slivered wild onion."

We do, sometimes, sing, and I had an old song in my head that day as we rolled through the foothills where my grandfather used to cook his liquor. He was bad to taste-test his recipe, and so was inclined to go to jail. That made me think of chain gangs, and I started to sing, under my breath…

Well, you wake up in the morning

Hear the ding-dong rang

You go a-marching to the table

See the same damn thang

Ain't no food upon the table

Ain't no pork up in the pan

But you better not complain, boys,

You'll get in trouble with the man

Then, right on cue, the old woman next to me began to sing…

So let the Midnight Special

Shine her light on me

It was as if I had been sitting with her in the living room, watching Gunsmoke, and she leapt to her feet and did the Charleston. Her musical history runs more to "The Church in the Wildwood," not a prison anthem. Still, I knew better than to ask; she would tell it to me, eventually, in a story. "My mind ain't too good, but that shouldn't surprise nobody," she said. "But I remember how Daddy and Mama used to cook together on a Sunday morning, and sometimes when they'd cook, they'd sing…"

You live 78 years, there's a story in everything.

They lived in Alabama then, but it might have been Georgia. Across seven decades, her geography is uncertain, as if geography matters. The world did not change much at Cedartown, coming or going. But she is sure it was Sunday. Some of the little stores in the highlands opened on Sunday then, and in the dawn her daddy would load his girls in his Model A cutdown—that's a Ford that has been converted to a truck with a blowtorch and a homemade bed of two-by-fours—and go see the butcher.

Funny how you can see a man, so long after he is dust. And she made me see him, there at the counter, towering over the little man in the white apron. My grandpa, Charlie Bundrum, was thin but indestructible, cured and hardened in his flesh and bones like a hickory handle on a good hammer. His Sunday overalls sagged over his bones, and his work boots were filmed in red dust.

He would ask the man if he had any T-bones—they cost a dear 39 cents apiece—and would nod his head as the butcher talked, as if it had been a possibility. Then he would say his mouth wasn't set right for steak, but maybe ham, or streak o' lean. The Depression lingered a long, long time in the foothills of the Appalachians, so usually it was side meat the butcher sold him.

If it was too soon for tomatoes from the garden, he would look at the ones that had traveled up from Florida on the freights, from the tip of the Sunshine State where winter didn't go. If they looked passable, he would take two of the ripest; they had to be dead ripe, for what he had in mind.

He would leave the store trailed by his girls like baby ducks, with a package wrapped in white paper under his arm. At home, he would stoke up the fire on the wood stove and reach for an iron skillet that had never seen soap and water, a skillet that had the lives of generations burned into the black.

"Daddy always cooked the meat and made the gravy," my mother remembered, "and Mama always made the biscuits and the coffee. They cooked together." Her daddy would leave the rind on and fry the fatback until it was so crisp it crumbled.

And her mama, Ava, who had gone with a baby on her hip to get the big rascal out of jail more than once, would pat out her biscuits and battle him word for word, and sing of the power and the glory in what must have seemed like a losing battle…

What a friend we have in Jesus

All our sins and grief to bear

She can still see her mother's hands in the flour. Ava made her biscuits in the battered old flour barrel itself, then sifted the leftover flour back into the barrel so as not to waste. Their recipes vary a little, hers and her mother's, but the principle, the doctrine, is the same. The biscuits began with a small bowl fashioned from the flour itself, to hold the wet ingredients. "You start with White Lily. Use a handful of Crisco, and half-and-half buttermilk and water. Mama liked to use sweet milk, mostly. And you make them like the old people do. Careful. The dough has to be just right, just thick enough so the biscuit will form a dome. Feel the flour as you do it. If the flour's old, I can feel it, feel it grainy, and if the flour's old the biscuits won't rise, and…when you've got it just right I pat "em out with my hands, I don't cut "em. It's pretty much like surgery." It probably does not hurt to sing about Jesus as you do it; she still sings as she does, as if Ava was in the kitchen with her, still.

What a privilege to carry

Everything to God in prayer

"Daddy would start the gravy as soon as the meat was done. He'd put flour in that skillet and brown it and brown it till it was nearly burned, then he'd thicken it with water. He might have made milk gravy ever' now and then but I don't remember it. It was water gravy, seasoned with black pepper, and good meat.

"But sometimes, we'd have what some people call red-eye gravy, and I still think it's the best thing, about, I've ever eaten. He'd take the clear, hot grease from the meat, and spoon in fresh-brewed, black coffee till it was about half and half. Then, he'd take a ripe tomato or two and dice "em up, and use a little salt on "em and a lot of black pepper. He'd take two of Mama's biscuits and open them up, and pile that diced tomato on top. Then he'd spoon that mixture, that red-eye gravy—nothin' but coffee and grease and the leavings of the fried meat from the bottom of the skillet—onto that tomato. And that hot grease, it causes that tomato to kind of wilt. I don't know if that's the right word for it, but it does, and…well, the trick to it is, you have to eat it right then or it's not fit to eat. But if you eat it right then…Lord, I have done made myself hungry."

Ava was prone to spells then, a kind of falling darkness that would suck the joy from the very air, but she was still young then and all right most of the time, and as she drizzled the red-eye gravy onto her children's plates she sang her displeasure at her big lout, but there was no darkness in it.

Single life is a happy life

Single life is a pleasure

For I am single and no man's wife

And no man can control me

"She only sung it when she was mad at Daddy," said my mother, remembering, and she smiled the way I wished she could always smile. She just remembered for a while then, how the great rascal, the great hammer swinger and liquor maker, would wink at her, and his girls.

It was the happiest she ever saw them. "I still remember all of that, with Mama and Daddy. I think it's what made me want to cook. And I can cook."

We rode a while in silence.

"Could you teach me," I said, "how to make a biscuit?"

"Oh Lord" was all she said.

WATCH: Classic Chicken and Dumplings

Si's Chicken and Dressing

"I learned my chicken and dressin' from Sis. Her real name was Maudie, and she and Daddy was first cousins. She was bad to cuss. Everything was blankety-blank this and blankety-blank that. But my God she could cook. She had cooked in restaurants but that ain't where she learned. She learned from her people, what we called the Georgia people, because they was from Rome. Back then, William (her big brother) had this rooster, and it was mean and it would peck Sis. Every time she went out to hang out the clothes it would peck her legs. Well, William would always eat with Sis, because she was such a good cook. One night she made a big pan of dressing. "Sis, this is the best chicken and dressing I ever had," he told her. And Sis said, "Well, it ought to be. It's your damn rooster.""

6 or 7 chicken thighs, skin on

1 large iron skillet of cornbread (or enough to fill a 9- x 13-inch pan)

2 cups (or so) of chicken broth

1 egg, beaten

1 large onion, chopped

½ cup celery, diced

¼ tsp. black pepper

¼ tsp. sage ("Do not ruin it with sage. Too much and it's all you taste.")

1 tsp. poultry seasoning (also contains sage)

1. Boil chicken in salted water until done, "till it's so tender it falls off the bone." (Boil for at least 1 hour.) Chicken legs can be substituted. Chicken breasts can also be substituted, "but it ain't as good," Mama says. Break the chicken into small pieces, but do NOT shred. Be careful to discard small pieces of bone and gristle, but do NOT discard the skin. "That's where your flavor is."

2. In a large bowl, break up cooked cornbread into small pieces; gradually stir in the chicken broth, mixing until you have a moist, pudding-like consistency. Stir in chicken, beaten egg, onion, celery, and seasonings. Pour into iron skillet. A pan is fine, if you are a Philistine.

3. Bake in preheated oven at 375º until the top of the dressing is crisp and golden brown and the inside is creamy. (This could be anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes, depending on the oven.) A spoon should make a faint cracking noise as it breaks the surface of the dressing.

4. Serve with green beans, mashed potatoes, and cabbage-and-carrot slaw.