“Cross Creek Cookery” is, in my opinion (after collecting cookbooks for 45 years) the quintessential regional American cookbook. In 1965, when I began collecting cookbooks, I focused primarily on club-and-church cookbooks because they so often presented a regional slice of Americana depending on the part of the USA they came from—from Boston you’d get New England clam chowder, while from Cincinnati you’d get Cincinnati Chili…but as time went by, the country has become more and more homogenized-you can go to a Denney’s or a McDonald’s in any state in the country and order anything on the menu…it will be the same menu in every part of the country. But collect cookbooks from years ago and you will get a far better sense of what regional cooking is all about.
After the publication and huge success of “The Yearling” in 1938, Marjorie’s publishers suggested a book about life in the Florida scrub. Marjorie’s thoughts were already running along the same lines; she didn’t have to fret over a title—the book named itself: “Cross Creek”. It was first published in 1942.
“Cross Creek was chosen for a Book of the Month selection, along with John Steinbeck’s “The Moon is Down”. “Cross Creek” received immediate critical acclaim with some reviewers calling her “a female Thoreau.”
“Cross Creek” rose to the top of the best seller lists and remained there for many months. The armed forces published a special edition of “Cross Creek” which led, in turn, to Marjorie being inundated with mail from servicemen…bearing in mind this was 1942 and the USA was deeply embroiled in World War II. Marjorie strived to answer all of their letters. I think the charm and quietness, the native humor and Marjorie’s love of the earth endeared her to the world during this difficult period in American history.
“Cross Creek Cookery” grew out of the popularity of a chapter in “Cross Creek”, titled “Our Daily Bread” so when Marjorie suggested to her editors at Scribner’s that she compile a cookbook, they quickly agreed. Of her cooking, Marjorie wrote (in “Cross Creek”) “Cookery is my one vanity and I am a slave to any guest who praises my culinary art. This is my Achilles heel…” (I smiled, reading those lines; I could have written them myself). She also said that it didn’t take much urging to get her to write a cookbook. “Scratch a cook” she wrote, “and you’ll get a recipe.”
“Cross Creek Cookery,” Marjorie wrote, “was a book of pure pleasure except for the heat of the kitchen” as “Marjorie tested recipes and the extra pounds she put on. Her husband Norton helped, writing down measurements and cooking time for the recipes. Elsewhere she wrote, “There are cooks who guard secret and precious recipes with their lives. This seems to me ungenerous in practitioners of an art…”
I have admired the work of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings most of my adult life but without really knowing who she was or the depth and range of her writing ability. She was not without fault, this Ms. Rawlings. She smoked too much (as many as five packs a day of unfiltered Lucky Strikes) and enjoyed alcohol to excess, and (as is evident if you have a copy of Cross Creek Cookery) relished good food, too, cooking recipes replete with Dora’s butter and cream (Dora was her cow). Marjorie’s health was often precarious as she fought repeated battles with chronic diverticulitis, for which, in the 1930s, there was not much treatment.
Marjorie said that her recognition of cookery as one of the great arts was not an original discovery, that her mother and grandmother had been famous cooks.
“When I read Della Lutes’ ‘A Country Kitchen’” writes Marjorie, “I wept in nostalgia for my Michigan grandmother’s dinner table…” (She goes on to explain that good cooking was not, as she expected it to be, a genetic talent, but after one memorable –inedible- meal, her mother in law sent her a copy of Fanny Farmer’s “Boston Cook Book” and “Lo and behold, my memories of my mother’s dishes suddenly fitted in with the new exactness and I could duplicate her secret recipes, her heart-melting egg croquettes, her chicken in aspic, her potato puffs, her white almond cake…”
Marjorie thought that, if she were destitute, she could have made a living as a cook, but only if it were in a place where the cream and butter and cooking sherry were in ample supply, for “Life at the Creek with Jersey cows has unfitted me for skimmed milk and margarine. And I should buy cooking sherry with my last dollar…”
“Our Daily Bread” told the story of cooking and eating in the Florida scrub—often prefaced with the catching of the entrée, whether it was alligator tail—which Marjorie considered fine eating when properly prepared—to raccoon, which Marjorie once prepared before she learned that the raccoon has a musk-sack which has to be removed before cooking. Her first attempt at cooking raccoon was a total failure.
Marjorie drew a line between eating rattlesnake (I guess!) and alligator, but conceded that “drawing a line between dangerous rattlers and harmless alligators is as though a cannibal said he would eat a friend but would not eat an enemy.”
“Cross Creek Cookery” was published in 1942 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Many of the recipes were her mother’s or grandmother’s. Many are recipes she created, or learned, living in the Florida scrub, using native ingredients.
The chapters range from soup (of which Marjorie says “I associate soup with either poverty or formal elegance”) to desserts (the longest section of all) including Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie and Marjorie’s Mother’s Almond cake with almond paste filling and boiled frosting.
Of the cake, Marjorie wrote that it made its appearance “spectacularly” on her birthday when she was allowed to choose her own dinner menu. It took a day to make, for the almonds had to be shelled, soaked in boiling water, the skins removed, the meats dried and blanched, then chopped fine. “The cake,” she wrote, “was as white as a virgin’s breast, as tender as a mother’s heart, and was made in four layers.”
Included in the chapter for hot breads were her mother and Idella’s biscuits, several kinds of cornbreads, hush puppies and an ice box roll recipe.
The Florida sea food section provides ten crab recipes, six for shrimp and others for Florida lobster, crawfish, and frogs’ legs.
Marjorie was also proud of her marmalades and included some recipes for them.
As you and I know, not too many cookbooks fall into a realm of which you can say “I can read it over and over!” – it’s like your favorite novel, something so special that every time you read it, you get something different from it. “Cross Creek Cookery” is like that.
It’s interesting to note that, as soon as Marjorie and her editor, Max, had worked through the galley and page proofs of “Cross Creek Cookery”, she took off on a trip to fulfill another writing obligation, traveling thousands of miles through southern forests to gather material for an article on American forests; however she was never able to satisfy the editors of Post and refused their suggestions for revisions. The article was eventually published in 1943 in Collier’s Magazine and titled “Trees for Tomorrow”—although this is not cookbook related, I point this out because Marjorie was a conservationist long before others became alarmed or it was fashionable to be concerned.
She was invariably ahead of her time. Her article explained that American forests were not infinite, the impact of the devastation of our forests on the countryside affected our towns and people. She combined interviews with lumber experts and simple people whose livelihood had disappeared with the disappearance of the forests in their environment. (See “Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Sojourner at Cross Creek” by Elizabeth Silverthorne.)
On the night of December 12, 1953, Marjorie complained of feeling ill but thought it was her troublesome diverticulitis acting up again. Later that evening when she was unable to walk, Norton took her to the hospital. Doctors told him that Marjorie had a ruptured aneurism, that a blood vessel had ruptured at the base of her brain. As Elizabeth Silverthorne explains, “Life and time had loaded the dice against Marjorie. She was betrayed by her genes (both of her parents died young), by her own personal habits (heavy smoking and drinking), by her love of good foods that led to excessive weight, and by her personality (high-strung and tense). The next day another blood vessel burst and she died. She was 57 years old.
THE MINUTES TICK SO SLOWLY THE YEARS SO FAST A LONG TIME NOW, MINUTES UNBEARABLE SLOW MINUTES, UNTIL YOU COME. BUT THE YEARS WHEN YOU WERE GONE (WERE) ONLY AN INSTANT, A BREATH OF AIR ACROSS THE OLEANDERS, A BUTTERFLY ON THE ONE-DAY HIBISCUS BLOSSOMS.
SO, IT IS LIFE AND LOVE ARE SLOW, AND DEATH IS FAST (QUICK).
(Found among Marjorie’s papers after her death).
Most of Marjorie’s property was bequeathed to the University of Florida Endowment Corporation in Trust. She left her property at Cross Creek to the University of Florida. For a long time, the property became rundown and unkempt, until the University turned the property over to the Florida Department of Natural Resources, which now operates it as the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site.
In 1983, Sally Morrison wrote “Cross Creek Kitchens”. Sally was a ranger who worked at the Rawlings home for many years.
For a copy of “Cross Creek Cookery” you need only to go to any online book site—Amazon, Alibris, Barnes & Noble – they all have copies at many different price ranges.
A soft cover copy of “Cross Creek Kitchens” such as I have can be purchased from Amazon.com starting at one cent for a pre owned copy.
–Happy Cooking and Happy Cookbook Collecting!