“Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South”
Author: Rick Bragg
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Price: $26.95 (Hardcover)
Collection of Pieces on Wide-Ranging Southern Subjects Will Please Rick Bragg Fans
Not everyone subscribes to “Southern Living” and “Garden and Gun” and enjoys Bragg’s short pieces there.
So it is a service to the multitudes that these pieces—58 from “Southern Living,” 7 from “Garden and Gun” and one from “Longleaf” magazine, a foreword to “Alabama Road Trips” and an Introduction to “The Picture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins”—have been collected here.
The pieces are grouped: life in the South, eulogies, food, family, holidays etc. and some of my favorites are Bragg’s food writing.
He is an accomplished food writer, having won a lot prizes in that category, including the James Beard Award. Like many a Southern boy of his generation, Bragg enjoyed terrific breakfasts, with fresh biscuits every day, he tells us. Now, he travels a lot, staying in motels, and is particularly hard on the breakfast buffet, where “pork sausage links are slowly petrifying inside a stainless steel coffin over a chemical fire.”
Bragg often waxes eloquent and nostalgic about the humble fare of his childhood, like a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, or pigs feet or, later in his journalistic career, the pork chop po’boy or red beans and rice in New Orleans or a Cuban sandwich in Tampa.
He can also go upscale, singing hymns of praise for the Bread Pudding Souffle at Commander’s Palace.
Bragg, however, is no Andrew Zimmern. He happily confesses that the “Hot Chicken” he ate in Nashville tasted as if “it had ben marinated in ghost pepper and kerosene.” It burned.
Touching his eyes afterwards “like to made him blind.” His nose was “seared.” He would have sought medical attention except he “could not bring [himself] to admit to a nurse that I had injured [himself] with a three-piece dinner.”
He also tells us that he is not “tempted by a chitlin. I know what a chitlin does.” “I don’t need a chitlin to be authentic.”
He will also turn down squirrel brains.
As readers and attendees of Bragg readings know well, self-deprecation is one of his standard rhetorical modes and make no mistake, in a world where there is so much bragging, pardon the pun, this is not a bad thing.
In “The Outcast” Bragg tells us he not a very successful fisherman. Using a bait-casting reel, he often snarls the line into birds’ nests. On this one fishing expedition with his brother, Bragg managed to rear back and plant his hook in the base of the horn of Ramrod, the family pet goat, which then took off running, with Rick in pursuit. This kind of comic scene is hard to create. We see it in The Three Stooges, but not often since then.
Bragg, like many southern boys, likes a good truck but these days even a pick-up can be too fancy.
His shiny new truck was pleasing until it began to lecture him and scold—peeping if he strayed left or right and finally suggesting he needed to take a coffee break.
There are several serious and moving remembrances here also, of kinfolk and literary figures like Harper Lee and Bragg’s friend Pat Conroy.
We will not see his like again.
There is a very nice longer piece—a behind the scenes piece—about the writing of the Jerry Lee Lewis biography. Bragg visited Lewis a number of times at his home in Mississippi and Jerry Lee was not an easy man to deal with. Fighting serious illnesses of his own, bedridden or bound to a wheelchair, discussing with Bragg his chances in the hereafter, he nevertheless remembers to ask after Rick’s mother’s health.
Sometimes Bragg becomes a kind of “humorist laureate,” writing “occasional” pieces and commemorating holidays. He had several pieces here about Halloween which in fact did use to be fun and isn’t much anymore.
Bragg writes an annual Christmas piece, often a letter to Santa. With admirable self-restraint, he will ask for a Camaro—not a Land Cruiser or a Ferrari. No matter, he usually gets socks, underwear and soap-on-a-rope.
So it goes.
Since Bragg’s very first book, “All Over but the Shoutin’,” we have enjoyed tales of his childhood—sometimes bittersweet.
In a long piece here ABOUT the magazine “Southern Living” he tells of how relatives would give him and his mother used copies. He loved reading them, imagining that one day he would, perhaps, with luck and hard work, live like the people in the magazine.
NOW, legions of readers subscribe to “Southern Living” especially to read the back page, Rick’s page. There’s a version of the American dream for you!
Bragg is often nostalgic. He writes warmly of his own life, his family’s past and the history of the South. Obviously, the book “is not intended to be a cold blooded examination of the South, but it is not all harps and flowers, either. It touches, now and then, on a South that breaks our hearts.”
A word of advice on how to read these pieces.
Think of O. Henry stories.
If you read them one after the next, you will ruin them for yourself, see the surprise ending coming: Oh, gosh, she sold her hair to buy him a watch fob. He sold his watch to buy her fancy combs.
Likewise, here; when you get these pieces in your hands, treat them like chocolates. Don’t eat them all at once.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.