Saturday, January 07, 2012

Florida culture and cuisine in "The Cracker Kitchen"

Previously published in Polly Waller’s “Page turners” column in The Perry News-Herald on 12/9/11.

My grandmother’s kitchen was in the back of an old Foley sawmill house that had been moved to Salem, Florida in 1962. The house design was common as far as “Foley” architecture goes, so I’m sure many of you locals can picture the interior. There were two bedrooms on the right side and a long living/dining area on the left. The kitchen was behind the dining room. It was fairly small and had windows on two sides to allow in light, a linoleum floor that creaked, homemade cabinets, an oil cloth on the small table and one of those wide porcelain sinks with rust stains flowing down from the faucet.

It was always warm and cozy, and in the summer, sometimes downright hot. People that drank coffee in this room sipped (or slurped in Grandpa’s case) from saucers, not cups. The smell was unique, no other kitchen has ever smelled quite as good to me. The bouquet included the warm scents of sweet potato, cornbread and strong coffee, with just the slightest exotic undertones of snuff. A screen door led out onto the back porch and it was never, ever slammed. Who knew when a cake would be in the oven? There was a lot of action going on, a lot of work and a lot of sweat.  The food produced here was superb, yet simple, southern fare and much of it came from the garden and woods.    

The times I spent in that kitchen with my grandmother Maud Towles are some of my most cherished. I never imagined anything could capture that time for me again outside of my own memories. But Janis Owens has captured that and more in her book “The Cracker Kitchen.”  She nailed it. If you have ever wished you had watched your grandmother (or your mother) cook more, then you will love this book.  

“The Cracker Kitchen” is not just a recipe book, it is about of a style of cooking, tradition, history and southern culture. The recipes are excellent, mostly standard southern favorites with a North and Central Florida flair. Many are unique to this geographic area. This is a world where you do not ever put sugar in your cornbread.  

The author knows, just like we do, that every recipe has a story. Each dish is introduced before the ingredients are listed. These introductions are told with a razor sharp wit and hit home time after time. The mention of “snuff dipping matriarchs in bonnets” made me stop and pause in sweet remembrance of not just Grandma, but all the ladies in my family and community from her generation. Those hard working, cane pole loving, chicken-killing women, who wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen without wearing an apron, are represented well in this book.  

Sometimes the stories take a tragic turn. “Mama’s Cornbread and Cracklin’ Cornbread” recipe has over a page of introduction including the explanation on why it is not such a good idea to live on cornbread alone. Eating corn that has not been treated in lye as a major part of your diet, with no vegetables and variety, can cause pellagra, a niacin deficiency that causes insanity(among other things). In the early 1900s pellagra was common in the rural south and four of Ms. Owens ancestors died in the Milledgeville Mental Hospital (a sister institution to Chattahoochee). Niacin deficiency was the root cause of their insanity. Makes me want to go easy on the cornbread.  

The first chapter, “Welcome to My Kitchen” is very enjoyable reading, even for those that don’t like to cook. In it, Ms. Owens examines the Florida Cracker history and culture as well as the cuisine. She addresses the negative connotations of the word Cracker and traces the word origins back to Shakespeare.  

The current usage of the word came into being when native born Floridians began to self identify as Crackers as a way to separate themselves from the Yankee transplants in the previous century.  According to the book, a Florida Cracker is a third generation (or more) Floridian descended not from plantation aristocracy, but from workers in the cattle industry, sawmills, lumberyards and turpentine camps. I guess that makes me a Cracker.  But it really doesn’t matter what you call me, just don’t call me late for supper, especially if Janis is cooking.  

Janis Owens lives in Newberry and is the author of three novels set in Florida, “My Brother Michael,” “Myra Sims” and “The Schooling of Claybird Catts.”  

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