This is a cookbook that I really enjoy, especially during this holiday season, when butter and pork -- which are staples of the cracker pantry- -- seem most enticing.
This is how Janis Owens defines the original, pioneer crackers: "We mostly settled along the southern half of the eastern seaboard, long before the War of Secession, but we never darkened the doors of Tara or Twelve Oaks unless we were there to shoe mules or work as overseers. We lived and thrived outside plantation society, in small towns and turpentine camps and malarial swamps. We're the Rednecks, the Peckerwoods, the Tarheels..."
That's how the North Florida author introduces her people in The Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, Down-Home Family Stories and Cuisine. The modern cracker is someone "more attached to a rural lifestyle."
Let's not cue up the "Free Bird" and get carried away with Southern romanticism here.
The cracker lifestyle was about scrabbling together a life, surviving
on whatever was cheap and abundant. The original crackers and Florida
cowboys lived far from town, so most of their produce came from their
own gardens. So did a lot of their meat, which included road kill or
game that many city folk would never consider eating.
In her "Wild Game Days" chapter, Owens begrudgingly shares some of these recipes. She tells you how to make fried rabbit "if you must" or baked armadillo,
which she finds so "attractive that I really couldn't find the words to
tell you how to butcher one." In her lifetime, Owens has consumed all
of the meats described, including rattlesnake, but she's over eating
anything that has to be skinned in front of her. "My distaste is the
modern distaste. I can go to Publix and buy chicken. I don't have to
eat what I trap in my yard."
Owens decided to include the recipes to pay respect to the old
traditions, but her writing also reflects her own modern sensibility: "I
don't go around all of the time trapping possum and eating them now. But it's a big part of the culture here. My brother is
hunting in the woods and he won't show up until the hunting season is
over. Back in the day, Crackers and pioneers ate anything. My daddy
said that my great-grandmother used to go out and shoot blackbirds for
supper. They would eat osprey. They'd eat anything they could bring down. They'd dress it and eat it."
Scattered throughout the book are funny, well-written stories about
Owens's life and kin, their traditions throughout the year, and their
front rooms full of Jesus pictures. The Cracker Kitchen is humorous, but
it's not one of those cookbooks full of joke recipes you'd never
actually make. Many are palatable and enticing, if not
healthful. Recipes are divided into Florida Cracker seasons, including
"Crosses, Cakes, and Storytelling over Coffins: It Must be Spring" and
"The Clear, Cold Days of Winter." There are menus for showers,
funerals, tailgate parties, Thanksgiving, New Year's Day, and Martin Luther
King Jr.'s birthday. I haven't tried the Velveeta Rocky Road Fudge yet,
but I'm intrigued and also a little frightened.
There is also more
quotidian fare, based on the Cracker essentials of butter and pork: "Yer
basic smothered pork chop," orange pie, tomato gravy, and crunchy sweet
potato casserole. Vegetables make an appearance in dishes like fried
greens, Texas caviar (with a base of black-eyed peas), and wilted
country salad (with bacon).
Here's are recipes for Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce and Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding for the Thanksgiving or Holiday table.