Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cracker Chidlings: Dispatches from the Sunshine State VIII

My first blog posting back on December 1, 2008 described a visit to Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s homestead at Cross Creek, Florida. I take every opportunity I can to return to that magical place and I can certainly understand how Rawlings fell in love with the area when she first visited in 1928. So it is not surprising that I headed down to the Creek, as Marjorie called it, a few days ago to wander through the pine hammocks with their saw grass, palms and palmettos; the stands of live oak draped in Spanish moss and kudzu; and the cypress swamps of the Big Scrub of north central Florida. This is where the northern temperate zone meets the semi tropics, part of this place the late Al Burt once described as the “Mullet Latitudes.” I understand why Rawlings, upon discovering the Creek, came here to stay.

Born in Washington, DC, in August 1896, Rawlings spent her early years in that city’s Brookland neighborhood, just over the line from where I presently reside in the Maryland suburbs. Her family also owned a small farm in Maryland where they spent weekends and summer vacations. She attended Washington’s public schools and graduated from Western High School in 1913. Her mother moved her and a young brother to Madison, Wisconsin where she began her studies as and English major, in 1914. Following graduation in 1918, she worked as a writer an editor in upstate New York and in Louisville, Kentucky. She visited Florida for the first time during the summer of 1928 and she was so impressed with the scrub land, the cattle ranches and the citrus groves of north central Florida that she purchased a small farm and grove in the hamlet of Cross Creek. She moved there in November of that year and for the rest of her life, until her untimely death in January 1953, she would call this area of north Florida her home. She is buried in a small, isolated cemetery in Island Grove, just a few miles from her farm at the Creek.

During her years in Florida she would write and publish her impressions of the landscape that surrounded her and the people she would come to call neighbors and friends. She often described her Florida as a new Eden. “This is the Florida, wild and natural . . . the invisible Florida,” she told an audience at Florida Southern College, my alma mater, in 1935. “Its beauty must be seen with the spiritual eye as well as the physical eye.” The first of these stories appeared as “Cracker Chidlings” in Scribner’s Magazine in February 1932. She continued to write about life at the Creek, and a decade after her arrival she would publish her classic novel The Yearling (1938).

On this recent trip I revisited Rawlings’ farm and wandered around the house and the various out buildings. There are still a few orange trees in the yard although most of the groves have gone back to the wild. There is her typewriter on the screened-in front porch where she did most of her writing. I can almost see her sitting there while Max Perkins, her editor at Scriber’s, sat nearby in his white suit and fedora sipping a martini. “The region is beautiful, but not pretty,” she wrote to Perkins shortly after he took her under his wing in 1931. “It is like a beautiful woman capable of deep evil and a great treachery. Back of the lushness is something stark and sinister.”

Just up the road from the farm is Cross Creek, which runs the short distance between Orange Lake and Lake Lochloosa. At present it is mostly dried up as the drought in central Florida continues. Cashing in on the popularity of Rawlings and her books, The Yearling restaurant first opened on the bank of the Creek in 1952 and continued to offer north central specialties until it closed its doors in 1991. It was here that I was first introduced to the local cuisine, my favorite being a generous serving of cooter (fresh water turtle found in the local creeks and ponds). We use to eat here frequently on our regular visits to nearby Gainesville and we were greatly saddened when it closed and fell into disrepair. On each return visit to the Creek I would drive by hoping to find it open. There were a couple ill-fated attempts to revive the place, but they never seemed to catch on. Thankfully it finally reopened for good a few years ago, serving lunch and dinner on Friday and during the weekend.

It was open when I passed by a few days ago and so I stopped in to check it out. I found it much as I remembered it. The menu is not extensive, but they serve what I came for. I feasted on a sampler of cracker offerings - frog legs, gator tail, fried green tomatoes, mushrooms and hushpuppies. All of this washed down with very cold beer. Despite the logo on the servers’ shirts urging one to “Eat Mo Cooter,” The Yearling only rarely serves this delicious swamp delicacy. My server claims it is still available but all of it is shipped to Japan where it brings top dollar. “We send them our fine cooter,” she told me under her breath. “All we get is that cheap plastic crap.” I was sorry I was not able to enjoy a fine piece of cooter pie.

After lunch I drove to Antioch Cemetery, a few miles east of the Creek near Island Grove. Here Marjorie is buried beside Norton Baskin, her beloved husband who survived her by 43 years (“A woman has got to love a bad man once or twice in her life, to be thankful for a good one.”), and near to still others, friends and neighbors whom she had described to one degree or another in her stories and novels. Baskin came up with a simple yet appropriate epitaph for his wife. “Through her writings she endeared herself to the people of the world.” It seems entirely appropriate that she rests in the sandy scrub land and near the people she loved so dearly.

This trip to the Creek will have to last me for awhile. We will soon be returning home to Maryland after several weeks enjoying our annual springtime hiatus here in the Sunshine State. The memories of this time will have to tide me over once I return to the city. “We cannot live without the earth or apart from it,” Marjorie wrote in The Yearling. “And something is shriveled in man’s heart when he turns away from it and concerns himself only with the affairs of men.” Marjorie will keep me whole and full.

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