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October 1, 2013

Rick Bragg brings his down home to Athens

— Rick Bragg is the quintessential hard-knocks kid, but he also considers himself one of the luckiest people in the world.

He has survived reporting from the Middle East and Haiti during the days of the Duvaliers, and being hit upside the head with a brick in Miami.

He even flipped his prized 1969 Camaro in a curve near his boyhood home in Possum Trot, Alabama, traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour. While suspended upside down with each end of his muscle car balanced on the banks of a deep ditch, Bragg still had the presence of mind to answer a state trooper’s inquiry as to whether he was dead with,  “****, no!”

Bragg, 54, has written six acclaimed books and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Today, he teaches a class in writing for magazines at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and writes a monthly feature in Southern Living.

Bragg spoke loosely on the subject of Southern cooking at Saturday’s second annual Grease Festival in downtown Athens. 

Bragg said his Southern Living stories are not of the gracious fare featured in the popular magazine, but of his experiences of living in the South. His stories, which are a far cry from the gentility promoted in features and advertising of the magazine, resonate with readers from all walks of life.

Saturday’s sold-out crowd at Athens State University’s Center for Lifelong Learning couldn’t get enough of his stories and reminiscing. Holly Hollman, communications specialist for the city of Athens and a former newspaper reporter, told Bragg how much his writing meant in a very trying time in her family. She said doctors told her that her mother had no brain activity and was dying.

“My Momma was in the hospital a few years ago around Christmas and my Aunt Bonnie sent me your column on stealing cedar trees from beside the road for a Christmas tree, and I read it to her while she was sedated because that’s what we used to do,” said Hollman.

She commented that her mother not only survived but was back to making fried pies.

“Does your Mama know about the U.S. Mail?” Bragg asked. “That story made my week.”

He asked Hollman about her mother, and then he gave his mailing address.

“But tell your Mama I’m more than a one-pie man,” he said.

Audience member Jeanette Hargrove said that Bragg has breakfast with her and her husband, Paul, once a month when the latest issue of Southern Living comes in the mail and they sit and talk about his column. She said his writing has stirred an interest in reading in her husband.

Bragg said he was “honored” to have breakfast with the Hargroves.

Circuit Judge Jimmy Woodroof asked Bragg when he had felt the time was right to write, “All Over but the Shoutin’,” his story of growing up in poverty.

Bragg admitted that the story had been written for some time before he went to work as a reporter for The New York Times, but first he had to make a name for himself. Only then, would the book get published and read, instead of being relegated to a pile of forgotten manuscripts by would-be writers.

Bragg pays loving tribute to his mother in “All Over but the Shoutin’,” and in other writings. He also writes of his alcoholic father in “The Prince of Frogtown,” with all of his shortcomings. But Bragg admits that despite it all, there was a special father-son bond between them.

As for Southern food, Bragg said southerners have become clichés, as in so many other facets of their lives. He said his favorite foods prepared by his mother are short ribs boiled with potatoes and carrots and bread pudding.

Bragg, noticeably thinner than in recent years, said he has enjoyed slowing down, teaching and telling the more gentle stories of his growing years.

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