When friends came to visit author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her rural wooden farmhouse, they could be sure of several things: good conversation, stiff drinks, and a sumptuous meal. Leslie Kemp Poole takes a cue from the writer with a dinner party composed of dishes from Rawlings' own cookbook.
Editor’s Note: Leslie Kemp Poole pens Lessons from the Marjories, a column meditating on the legacies of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Marjorie Harris Carr, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
When friends came to visit author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her rural wooden farmhouse, they could be sure of several things: good conversation, stiff drinks, and a sumptuous meal.
“I hold the theory that the serving of good food is the one certain way of pleasing everybody,” she wrote in her 1942 book “Cross Creek,” a memoir of life in her north Florida hamlet. “Cookery is my one vanity and I am a slave to any guest who praises my culinary art…For my part, my literary ability may safely be questioned as harshly as one wills, but indifference to my table puts me in a rage.”
Not only did her table overflow with fabulous meals, but so did her writing. One particular chapter in “Cross Creek,” entitled “Our Daily Bread,” offered mouth-watering food descriptions that not only tantalize readers today, but distressed soldiers serving in World War II. The book was one of three Rawlings’s works distributed to the American military during the war, and the food descriptions really hit home with servicemen who longed for home-cooked meals.
“To preserve discipline in our armed forces, I demand that ‘Cross Creek’ be banned in or near any encampments,” wrote one aviation cadet. “The chapter on foods, if read by many soldiers, will wreck the morale. Our food is good, but it is not that described in ‘Our Daily Bread.’ My stomach is just recovering from the torture it received as a result of matter over mind.”
A corporal wrote, “Lady, I have never been through such agonies of frustration.”
Could they have been thinking about Rawlings’ description of eating mangoes with a towel around one’s neck? Or of the luscious cream and butter that came from Dora, her Jersey cow? Perhaps it was the multitude of breads that she delighted in baking — all certain to conjure up indelible sensory memories.
Rawlings noted that “eight out of ten letters about ‘Cross Creek’ ask for a recipe, or pass on a recipe, or speak of suffering over my chat of Cross Creek dishes.” Her response: compiling recipes from family, friends, staff, and of her own creation into “Cross Creek Cookery,” published in 1942.
It is a smart, funny cookbook that not only holds great recipes but also ones that we might frown upon today, like pot roast of bear and how to cook sea turtle eggs — both products of species that are now highly protected. It is a sign of how times (and appetites) have changed with the boom in Florida’s population that occurred after the book’s publication. Even Rawlings was becoming more sensitive, writing that bears were “becoming scarce. I see no reason for destroying the remaining ones… But I must admit that bear meat at the proper season, and properly cooked, is a delicious meat.”
As cookbooks go, it is a joy to read, with anecdotes peppered into her not-always-precise instructions. For example, how do you translate “a cup of Dora’s cream” into modern measurements? And what temperature exactly is a “moderate to hot” oven? Hmmmm.
To celebrate the 80th anniversary of both books, I decided to do what Rawlings would do — throw a dinner party. My food guru friend Heather McPherson, who has published multiple Florida cookbooks, is always a good sport and enthusiastically endorsed the idea, helping to plan the party. We invited some Rawlings fans to join us on a Saturday evening with one caveat — they had to bring dishes from “Cross Creek Cookery.” Quickly, we had a group of nine eager to join in the fun.
This was our menu, using recipe names Rawlings provided:
- Bourbon Old Fashioneds (Rawlings loved bourbon so this was our addition)
- Mango Chutney on Curried Cream Cheese with Green Onion and Bacon (an improvisation on her chutney)
- Broccoli a la Hollandaise
- Flank Steak
- Crab A la Newburg, Cross Creek
- Mother’s Jellied Chicken
- Evadne’s Gingerbread with Whipped Cream
- Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie
- Overnight Cookies (to go)
It was daunting to take on Rawlings’ culinary works, but we all jumped in. Not the greatest cook in the world, I got up early to make cornbread and gingerbread, figuring that if they didn’t turn out I still had the afternoon to repeat and perfect the recipe. It was with trepidation that I read some of her instructions such as: “batter should be on the thin side” and “pour into rectangular pan.” How big is a rectangle? I took a guess and to my delight (and relief) both turned out well, and I could turn my attention to setting the table with citrus fruit and magnolia leaves. Okay – the leaves were fake, a concession to the fact that my tree is too tall to climb. Rawlings loved magnolias and grew oranges on her property — but that’s another essay.
As my guests arrived, we assembled the food and put it on display for all to consider. Reader, are you drooling like the warring soldiers? Well, you should be — the repast was simply delightful.
And the conversation even more so.
Each of us recalled how we came to be Rawlings fans and talked about our favorite books and how the author has influenced our lives. One couple owns a vacation cabin near the setting of “South Moon Under” on the Ocklawaha River. Two women are heavily involved in the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society, of which Heather and I are members, and they work to promote her books in a world where rural Florida is disappearing, as is Rawlings’ fame despite her 1939 Pulitzer Prize. My newfound career as a college professor is linked directly to my literary relationship to Rawlings, and I teach her works in my classes.
After dinner (and before dessert) we commenced a reading of “Invasion of Privacy” a 1999 play by Sarasota resident Larry Parr that depicts the 1943 trial in which Rawlings defended herself against accusations that she had libeled and invaded the privacy of one of her friends, Zelma Cason, in describing her in “Cross Creek.” The case stretched on for years in court and appellate court. Ultimately the court ruled in favor of Cason but awarded her only $1.
We each took up roles and read aloud from the second act of the play, some feigning southern accents to enhance our characters. It was a great icebreaker, generating much laughter, and was the best part of the evening — until we got to dessert. The sugar fix was in with pecan pie and gingerbread — I could have died in my dessert plate and gone to heaven. The evening concluded on a happy note of new and renewed friendship, bolstered by full bellies.
As we toasted Rawlings, it occurred to me that all these decades later she had once again thrown a hell of a party. Thanks, Marge.
Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is author of “Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century” and former executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. Poole is an editor of the recently released book “The Wilder Heart of Florida: More Writers Inspired by Florida Nature.”
Cover image: Cover of “Cross Creek Cookery” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings