Because Margaret Bragg won't abide hospital gowns, her son Rick's been sent home to fetch proper garb. His octogenarian mom, tenacious heroine of best-seller "All Over But the Shoutin'," has survived chemotherapy and surgery, but is still vertical, he stresses.

He'd grown up watching her cook from a distance — as country boys, the brothers Bragg stayed nasty, covered in "coal dust, tadpole effluvium, forget red dirt and red mud and dog hair." Even from a distance, though, he knew what a kitchen should hold: "... lingering smell of bacon grease, biscuit smell, that cornbread smell. ... My whole life there's been cornbread." 

"One day when I walked in to fetch clothes, there was just nothing," he said. "Iron skillets have kind of an old, cold iron smell to them, when they’re not in use. And lemon-scented dishwashing liquid. And that’s all there was.

"It scared me to death. It just shook me. It occurred to me, with no recipes, no history, when she walks from that kitchen, then everything she knows about cooking goes with her."

The alchemy, stories that bind food to soul, became "The Best Cook In the World," subtitled "Tales from My Momma's Table." Tuscaloosans can hear more at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Tuscaloosa Public Library, where he'll read a bit and answer questions. It's part cookbook, part storybook, part quest to translate mom-talk into specifics. His mom doesn't use measuring spoons, own a cookbook or write down recipes. It's memory, instinct and craft.

"The most frustrating thing about it was to sit down and try to get this old hard-headed woman — 'cause that’s what she is when I’m mad at her — to get her to break it down," said Bragg, who lives in Fairhope, and commutes to Tuscaloosa to teach at the University of Alabama once a week, when not on tour. " 'How much flour did you use?' 'Enough.' 'How did you know when it's done?' 'When it smelled right.' ... I learned a dab is different from a daub. I learned a handful of flour is a scientific measurement; if a handful isn’t enough, then a good handful is.

" 'Oh hon, just some.' What in the heck is 'some'?"

The book contains tales he'd grown up on, or learned later. There's fist-fighting, ancestral ghosts, drunken hogs, a grandmother who took exuberantly to chicken-killing, a hog that "suicided itself" ... "The life expectancy of a hog in this book is slim," Bragg said.

"But I have always wanted to write more about where our food comes from. Because I'm biased, I think it's the best food in the world. I think they turn (soul food) into a cliché in a lot of places. Some guy comes down South, and he's slowly stirring a raccoon skull in a pot, or eating a live frog, or wrestling an alligator. Ain’t reason to eat any of that if there’s a porkchop lying around."

In the linchpin tale, he recounts fierce Jimmy Jim Bundrum, who could wield a skillet well as a fist. After a bloody fight in 1919, Jimmy Jim fled atop a tall black mule into the north Georgia mountains. He hid out years, until his scrawny 17-year-old son found him. The old man couldn't reckon why, being as due to wrath, the family had "dug a deep dark hole for him, and filled it in."

"You have to come with me," the young man said, " 'cause I've married a pretty and hard-headed woman who can't cook a lick, and I do believe that I am a-starvin' to death."

Old Jimmy Jim taught the young bride of Bragg's grandfather, who taught Margaret. Of course each generation or cook adds variations, as a jazz musician interprets and interpolates, in dabs and smidges and handfuls.

"People who know something about cookbooks all wanna know, 'Did you test these recipes?' Yeah, I tested 'em when I was 4, and 6, and 13 and 17," Bragg said. His ambition? "First, let's not poison anybody."

At early readings he's been surprised to hear folks say they've tried the recipes out.

"Which, quite frankly, terrifies me," he said. "But I think a good cook will probably look at this and make their own alterations. I think the ones who’ll be surprised by the outcome are the ones that don’t take the care."

Even just writing about it filled him.

"No matter where you are in your life, I found thinking about this food, kinda living it, I think it rests your mind a little, and it lifts your spirits," he said. "I guess that's what they mean by soul food. ... It's a kind of richness for people who don't have any riches."