The Cracker Kitchen: It's Not Just Road Kill

Categories: Cookbooks
Courtesy of Scribner
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.

Janis Owens.jpg
Abigail Reichardt
Janis Owens in Newberry, Florida
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."

Courtesy of Janis Owens
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.

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