I first met Rick Bragg during one of the saddest weeks of my career. On March 24, 1998, a 13-year-old boy and his 11-year-old accomplice opened fire on their classmates and teachers at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro. Four students and a teacher were killed before the shooters, Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, were arrested as they attempted to flee. Ten others were wounded.
At the time, I was the director of policy and communications for Gov. Mike Huckabee. I flew with the governor to Jonesboro early the next morning (Huckabee and I had been on a private plane returning to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., when we first received word of the shooting). We rode from the airport to the Westside campus in an Arkansas State Police vehicle. I counted 22 satellite trucks that were sending live news reports around the world. I knew immediately that the folks there needed help with media relations, and the governor encouraged me to take as many of the staff as necessary to Jonesboro to set up a media center. For the next week, we operated a 24-hour-a-day media headquarters on the Arkansas State University campus.
Bragg was among the reporters sent to Arkansas by The New York Times. As I read his copy and visited with him in the media center, I sensed that he had a better understanding of the rural South, its people and its traditions than the other national reporters who had descended on Jonesboro. While many of those reporters blamed the "gun culture of the South"--remember that this was a year before the Columbine mass shooting in Colorado--Bragg took a more nuanced approach while explaining in vivid detail the grief that hung over our state.
Bragg later would cover the international controversy surrounding a Cuban boy named Elián González in his role as the Times' Miami bureau chief.
I learned why I related so well to what Bragg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, wrote about the South. He and I were born in 1959. He was raised in the hills of north Alabama, and I was raised in the pine woods of southwest Arkansas. But the food we ate, the stories we heard and the experiences we had were similar. I read Bragg books such as All Over but the Shoutin' and Ava's Man and recognized my kinfolks.
I was fortunate enough to have all four grandparents live into their 90s. Their stories gave me a sense of what life in Arkansas was like starting in the early 1900s. Just as in north Alabama, it was tough. Bragg often refers to "my people." In a sense, his people are my people. They're our people, hardworking residents of the rural South who survived the Great Depression and World War II.
Bragg is in Little Rock today for the annual Arkansas Literary Festival. He will speak at 7 p.m. at the Ron Robinson Theater downtown about his latest book The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma's Table.
Though I've only met her through her son's prose, I know Margaret Bragg, who never owned a cookbook and who measured things in "dabs" and "smidgens." She could have been Leanna Nelson, my grandmother in Benton, or Bess Rex Caskey, my grandmother in Des Arc. She cooks like my grandmothers cooked. The recipes in the book are the foods I ate as a boy--fresh field peas with pork, stewed squash and sweet onions, fried okra.
I shouted "amen" when I read what Rick Bragg had to say about the okra: "This is not a wet-battered fried okra. Nothing my mother cooks from the garden is battered that way. It defeats the purpose of fresh food, she believes. ... It should be so deep green it is almost black, and the meal should be crispy. This is not the deep-fried, battered, still-raw okra you get in restaurants."
After becoming a fan of Bragg's writing, I learned that he was also a master storyteller. When Huckabee hosted the Southern Governors' Association in Little Rock, we invited Bragg as the keynote speaker. After I had moved to the Delta Regional Authority, I had Bragg as the keynote speaker for the DRA's annual meeting in New Orleans.
We were trading stories in a French Quarter restaurant called Irene's when we discovered that we both had started our careers at small newspapers--Bragg at the Anniston Star in Alabama, me at the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia. I mentioned that one of the conference speakers who would be joining us for dinner had a bachelor's degree from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. In his trademark style, Bragg said slowly: "Yale, Harvard. Daily Siftings Herald, Anniston Star. We'll double-team him."
Bragg writes of his mother: "Since she was 11 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 80 years more than 70,000 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."
His people. My people. Our people.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 04/27/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: His Momma's table