Our dining editor, Joanne Drilling, caught up with non-fiction author and guardian angel of Southern culinary culture, Rick Bragg earlier this week. Bragg is a regular contributor to periodicals such as Southern Living and Garden & Gun. An epic storyteller inspired by Appalachian tradition, Bragg is expected to draw a record-size crowd for his October 16 Signature Series reading at the Campbell County Public Library’s Newport branch.
JD: On Friday, you’ll be here in town reading at the Campbell County Public Library. I know the staff there is awfully honored to have a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist come and speak. How did we luck out?
RB: It’s part of the way that you keep your writing life vibrant. And I’m not going to lie, it’s part of the way that I make my living. Quite frankly, your part of the country I should have been to more. We have a lot of folks up there. Kentuckians are not very different from my people in a lot of ways. They work hard—they swing hammers, they dig coal, they know the people that I write about already. Geography doesn’t have a lot to do with it. It’s more a matter of toughness and resilience than region.
JD: While you’ve written for the New York Times, covering everything from unrest in Haiti, and the Oklahoma City bombing, not to mention the intensely personal stories of former POW Jessica Lynch and the custody and immigration controversy surrounding Cuban child Elian Gonzalez, I just can’t get enough of your food writing. You don’t just write about food, you write about food in the context of your Southern heritage—growing up in Alabama, living in New Orleans—where deviled eggs celebrate a family matriarch and dressing is never “stuffed” into a Thanksgiving turkey. You won a James Beard Award for an essay you wrote for the lavish Southern lifestyle magazine Garden & Gun about oysters in 2010 and are a finalist again this year again for an essay for that same publication about grouper sandwiches of yore. How big of a deal was that honor for you?
RB: I worked for a little while in a lot of places that were very frightening. I covered Haiti. I wrote about Pakistan post 9/11 and the genesis of hatred and the militant Islamic fundamentalists. I wrote about that from cities like Karachi and Peshawar and I was very proud of doing it. But as I jokingly say to people, I’m too old to duck and run. I have found at this point in my life (I’m 56 now) that I tend to be more happy remembering. Not nostalgic—because nostalgia is kind of a warm and fuzzy portrait of what we were like—but I tend to do more stories on the past, especially the deep past. Today I tend to write more about family, about food, about music and language. Just living, really. Let’s face it, what’s better than writing about food?!
People say about people in New Orleans that they will sit and talk about eating while they eat. They’ll talk about cooking while they eat; they’ll talk about flavor while they eat. And then when they’re done eating they talk about what they want to eat next. That’s a very Southern thing. Down here we all live to eat. Writing about that has been one of the joys of this part of my life—talking to my mama about what goes into her cornbread dressing, or talking to her about her beef and taters.
JD: In an essay entitled, “Bad Slaw,” from your newest book, My Southern Journey, you lament the horror of pre-fab coleslaw. You write:
We must stop this. We must rise up, as a people, and say no to rancid coleslaw, must stand strong in the rushing tide of apathy that threatens not just our quality of life, but life itself.
For I fear real bad coleslaw can actually kill you.
The next time you are served a half-pint of tainted slaw, do not just pick at it, regretfully and in silence. You know you have done this. You know.
No, you must raise the offensive article high above your head and shout, “Nay!”
Or go ask for a fresh one.
And it stands to reason that anytime one suffers long enough for culinary quality, a tipping point is finally reached and one must enter the fray. Which you do—combining course-cut red cabbage and carrots, adding only mayonnaise and ground black pepper, then mixing it all with your hands.
RB: I got a theory about good slaw: The more ingredients that you add, the more you begin the process of breaking down the cabbage. I think the cabbage should be crunchy. I course chop mine. It should be a crunchy dish. I’m careful not to leave long limp slivers of carrot. I will maybe eat it the next day but to be honest with you I haven’t done that in a long time. It has to be fresh. I got really fed up. I’ve been eatin’ bad coleslaw for 20 years. Something happened to food in this country where good food became something that wealthy people could have. They could go to the delicate restaurants that made food an art form. But the rest of us—and I always consider myself a blue-collar guy—we make do with three or four day-old coleslaw and heat lamp fried chicken that is just so desiccated.
They do it because we don’t complain. I think I wrote in there that “coleslaw should not take to the highway.” I first thought about that years ago because I tend not to eat a lot of seafood in the middle of the country. I once got a steak in Sitka, Alaska. Sitka is a wonderful place: great people, beautiful scenery but the steak was kind of like a tarpaper shingle. I just looked at the waiter and he said, “You see any cows around here?” He had a good point. I think coleslaw is something that everyone aught to be able to do. And they only reason they don’t do it well is because we let them. Coleslaw is my new cause. I still give money to the United Way, but coleslaw is my battle cry.
JD: In that James Beard Award-winning essay about oysters, you write:
There are just some things that male writers, of a certain ilk, feel they have to do. I call it the Curse of Hemingway. We have to like to fish. We have to be proficient in blowing birds from the sky with shotguns. And we have to love oysters. We have to sit around a table in some sun-blasted shack on some desolate, mosquito-infested cay and slurp ‘em right out of the shell. Or they take our vowels away.
You teach writing, specifically journalism, at the University of Alabama. When you talk to students about how to write, do you find that they come with these pre-conceived ideas about writing, about gender and class, even about food? And how do you help them to find their own voice when it comes to food?
RB: I think most of my students are just figuring out what they want to do with their skill. They don’t have a lot of preconceived ideas, which is good because it gives me a chance to try to turn ‘em towards the good side. I think the worst thing that food writers do is write about food with no flavor. The only way to get people to taste food is with vivid description. They need to know the color, the texture.
The Mississippi Delta is famous for tamales. And the texture is what makes them good. They’re not quite solid. They’re creamy and hot as hell. And I describe them as “pudding made in hell.” I think that you really got to show with every other sense. Taste is hard. Smell is damn near impossible. You gotta make people see it. When you break into my mama’s cornbread dressing there is a little bit of a cracking sound because the top of it is kinda crispy. There’s a breaking sound like crème brûlée when you take that spoon and break through the top. There’s a crackin’ sound and then nothing because the bottom is smooth like bread pudding. I try to use those words so that people see it. When you write about food you need to try to get beyond the pretensions and get straight to the flavor.