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Joni Woolf: Recipes from Cross Creek, Florida, 1942

“It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, or nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home.” — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1942

 

In the 1930s (almost a century ago), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings left the urban North to move to a remote area of Central Florida called Cross Creek, where she would spend the rest of her life writing and welcoming friends to her modest farmhouse. If most of us have heard of her, it is because of the fame secured when she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for “The Yearling,” a book that was later made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, and Claude Jarman Jr. Many of us are not familiar with her book about cooking food in Florida in the 1930s and ‘40s, and which I just discovered through Geri Nelson, who has just moved to Americus with her husband Richard. (Richard Nelson will become the priest-in-charge at Calvary Episcopal Church soon, and Geri, an ordained deacon, will be involved in the parish also.)

More than a cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery is, in addition to classic recipes, a story about Rawlings’ love affair with her adopted home, a place she never left, once she got there. Her recipes are legion, as are her stories of writers from the North who come to visit, eat, and comment on her life in the near-wilderness that Central Florida once was. Long-time restaurant critic and food editor for the New York Times, Craig Claiborne, said of the book, “One of the best and most concentrated and most authentic books on Southern cooking.” It has become a classic.

Here in Southwest Georgia, dove season is fast approaching, so it seems a good time to publish some of Rawlings’ recipes for wild birds. Her recipes are not complex; they remind us of a time when preparing good food was a rather simple process of finding a few complementary ingredients and allowing the food’s natural flavors to speak for themselves. Here is how she cooks quail or dove:

 

Pan-Fried Young Quail or Dove

“Roll quail or dove in salted and peppered flour. Fry in one-half inch of hot butter until tender, turning once. Make gravy by adding flour to butter one tablespoon flour to every two tablespoons of butter, and rich milk or thin cream, one cup to every tablespoon of flour. More salt.

She elaborates: “My friend Dessie is one of Florida’s most expert campers. Given an axe and a gun, she can make a good living in the woods. I once saw her bring down a duck on the wing with a .22 rifle. As a cook, I should be extremely cautious about turning her loose in my kitchen, but on a camp, I should take her say-so as to the cooking of any game dish.”

Her recipe for deep-fried quail is just as simple:

 

Deep Fried Young Quail or Young Dove

Dip quail or dove in milk. Roll well in salted and peppered flour. Drop in kettle of fat hot enough to brown a cube of bread in 60 seconds. Fry until a chestnut brown. Serve with grits and butter.

 

Did I say “simple?” I would add “authentic.” One can almost hear her voice when she describes how she makes Brunswick Stew.

 

“At Cross Creek and in the neighboring Florida backwoods, we make the dish at hog-killing time, and associate it with that autumn season of harvest and plenty. The basis is fresh pork, and is likely to consist, in humbler circles, of small pieces of lean pork that have escaped the sausage grinder, along with the liver, the lights, and the heart, cut in one-half-inch cubes. Since I cook emotionally, without measurement, and since I am compiling this set of recipes in the heart of the summer, when no decent Floridian would consider killing a hog, and so cannot ‘prove’ my measurements as I have done with other recipes, I can give only approximate proportions … Roughly, the proportions are as follows:”

 

4 lbs. lean fresh pork, liver, lights, heart, all cut in ½ inch cubes

Simmer until tender, 2 to 3 hours, in 4 quarts of water

Add

2 teaspoons salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1 large can peas (or 2 cups cooked cow-peas)

1 small can lima beans

1 large can tomatoes

1 medium can corn

“Simmer until mixture is rather thick. It should be moist, but not actually wet. Cornbread should be served as a concomitant.” She adds, “Plain people enjoy breaking the cornbread into the stew.”

 

There is much to commend this book, and I do. At its ending, Rawlings writes about the integrity of simple meals, offered by those who have little. And she adds “Better a dinner of herbs where love is.”

Amen.

 

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net