When journalist, author and essayist Rick Bragg lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he lost 30 pounds and got healthy. A bagel, he writes, is a biscuit that’s been saved. When he got back to his South and those grilled shrimp on cornbread, the fried oyster po’boys, the footlongs and other traveling food like cracklin’s, well, “Help me, somebody.”
“My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South” is a collection of mostly humorous essays organized under the headings of home, table, place, craft and spirit. Home and Mama is where it all starts, and those first charming essays set us up for what is going to be a quirky but heartfelt tribute to all things southern, but especially food.
“I love big-haired waitresses who call me baby,” writes Bragg. Bragg nicely conveys that sense of sweet caring he feels down South, like a blanket on a chilly night. Warm and safe. And such is the tone of “Southern Journey.” Loving kindness, flocks of blackbirds that soar and dip and take your heart with them, the fine art of “loafering” and the meaning of “piddling.”
Bragg writes that he wants to avoid clichés and stereotype, and he does. He gives us a book of idiosyncratic people, Bragg included, that we want to meet. There are men who love barbecue, like Bragg. “I am a Southern man. I have the hopelessly stained T-shirts and chronic high blood pressure to prove my love of barbecue. I am at peace in the glow of embers, which is, probably, good training for my hereafter.” And there are men, standing, talking of “work, of steel mills and pipe shops and crop rows, of good tomatoes and bad hips, of how they would rather push a Chevy than drive a Ford….” Or Uncle Jimbo, who gave up lying on New Year’s. “It’s hard, son,” Uncle Jimbo said. “How long you been quit,” Bragg asked. “’Bout 15 minutes.”
In Bragg’s South, the family gathers for the Thanksgiving meal, made with kitchen tools handed down for decades, and then settles down for a good long talk to “unburden themselves of all the fine gossip they have been holding onto….” Food and stories go together, and in this lively writer’s eye, they require time to savor and appreciate.
Biting into sausage gravy over buttery biscuits is, for Bragg, entrapment. He is powerless over the South, food, custom, loafering. Cambridge, where people talk so fast they are likely to run out of stories, is suspect. In the South, “We talk like we are tasting something.”
Bragg’s South might be disappearing, but he’s caught it here with essays like “O Christmas Sock.” These are the tube socks fastened to the Sheetrock by a tenpenny nail. Socks stretch, accommodating a world of treats including an orchard of tangerines, 1,000 peppermints and the 4,236 walnuts that “was like giving a child a hunk of iron to open.” Bragg doesn’t remember eating a single piece of walnut, “just looking forlornly at a smashed patty of obliterated shell and walnut paste.”
“We have stockings now. They have garland, ribbon, and sparkles, and come from town.” I am not ungrateful, he says, “But they will not stretch a lick.”
Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who resigned after a reporting controversy. He went on to write a number of books about the South, including a memoir about his family that included his relationship with an abusive, alcoholic father. His is a hard-won humor, plied from a world of woes and a deep love of place. Warning, if you’re watching what you eat, don’t read this book on an empty stomach.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at email@example.com Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.