As if it wasn’t enough to be an award-winning author proclaimed by no less an authority than Pat Conroy as “one of the finest novelists of our time,” Janis Owens is also one hell of a cook, if the recipes in “The Cracker Kitchen” are anything to go by.
Native Floridian (a rarity these days!) and only daughter of a Pentecostal preacher turned insurance salesman, Janis clearly inherited the treasured storytelling gene, and her distinctive, humorous voice imbues “The Cracker Kitchen” with as much Southern flavor as the recipes themselves. For this is not just a cookbook, but a song to the South and its people as well as an integral part of its cuisine.
But let’s start with that term “Cracker.” As Janis points out, its origin has been debated for years, but before it became either a source of pride in some circles and an insult in others, it was slang for people so poor they ate cheap corn instead of ground white flour, for poor white overseers who cracked whips on field slaves, and for cowmen cracking whips on Spanish cattle as they drove them from the Floridian scrub. Eventually, “it had come to describe a portion of the population that was the nemesis of the social-gospel, julep-sipping South.”
It’s a term this author owns with pride and affection. As she says in “Welcome to My Kitchen”:
“We adapt, we hide. We emerge, we move to greener pastures. We marry outside the species, then convert them so thoroughly that soon they can’t remember where they came from in the first place. We’re like a kindly old virus, marching on, country to village to town, just like the bluebloods of Yoknapatawpha County feared. We are America’s past, and along with every other diversity, we are its future.
“Trust me on this one.”
* * * * *
I had the great pleasure of meeting Janis earlier this year when she gave a talk and cooking demonstration to promote “The Cracker Kitchen” at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando. Won almost immediately by her down-to-earth style and stories about her family, my friend Joyce and I chatted with her for several minutes afterward as if we’d known her for years…and indeed, Janis and Joyce discovered they even had some “way back kin” in common. I was rather sorry to learn that she’d soon be moving to western Virginia with her job, but Newberry, Florida’s loss was Abingdon’s gain…and there’s always Facebook.
Now getting back to the real matter at hand…those recipes. As I skimmed through the titles I was quickly taken back to the cast-iron skillets and savory odors wafting from the kitchens of my grandmother and great-aunt…to a few things I couldn’t remember relatives cooking but which still sounded a hallelujah chorus of “Oh, Lord” in my brain:
Banana Split Pie. Texas Sweet Onion Pie. Cold Chicken Salad with Pecans and Tarragon. Grannie’s Fried Greens. And, mother of them all (to this girl, at least), Fried Okra.
Take it from me, you won’t want to read this book on an empty stomach. Actually, I didn’t even have an empty stomach, and still wanted to head out to my kitchen on the spot to whip up a passel of those whatever-diet-I’m-currently-on-be-damned concoctions. A mere skim of this tome is likely to produce an overwhelming desire to eat, even after midnight.
Of course, honesty compels me to admit that, upon reaching the “Wild Game Days/Hunting Season” section, my eyes bugged out and the hair threatened to stand up on the back of my neck at instructions for preparing “Baked Armadillo,” “Rattlesnake,” and “Roast Possum and Sweet Potatoes.” But then, no one has ever been able to accuse me of being an adventurous eater. Game lovers can rest assured that dishes such as venison roast, fried rabbit, fried frog legs and stewed squirrel are also on the menu here, but in spite of the fact that my mother is reasonably sure I tasted the latter meat in my childhood, and with all due respect to my Southern forebears who ate whatever they could catch, kill, broil, fry or stew as a matter of survival, I’ll be taking a leaf out of Janis’s book when she says, “If you’re having me over for supper and cooking possum, give me a little heads-up, and I’ll drop by Hardee’s for that chicken sandwich on the way.”
In other words, just call us when you’re ready to serve dessert…especially if it’s a slice of Mississippi Mud Cake.
* * * * *
Cooks and eaters of practically any ethnicity will find something to enjoy in this love letter to “the three pillars of Cracker life: food and laughter and food.” Bake an Easter Bunny cake in the spring. Cool down with some carrot-raisin salad or cucumbers in sour cream during the dog days of summer. Carry on tradition with roast turkey, sweet peas and cranberry salad at Thanksgiving. Celebrate your soul with smothered pork chop and hoecake. And while your dishes are cooking, take a moment to enjoy the glimpses of another time in the vintage family photos that pepper the book.
Then, as Janis concludes: “Eat and enjoy, amen.”
* * * * *