Thursday, March 05, 2009

Celebrating Cracker Cooking ... and No, I'm Not Talking About Saltines

Which is all to say that this particular subspecies of the very earliest Americans, which I will refer to as Crackus Americanis, was an unusually diverse and colorful band of humanity, which took root and flourished all over pioneer America in the latter century. And though their affiliation with whips, poor dental hygiene, and old-time religion gave them a really virulent case of bad PR, they eventually came to embrace their name with humorous deprecation, in no small part because they evolved into such an intractable and stubborn race that self-referring with a derogatory term suited them down to the ground.

Their whole persona was wrapped up in being independent, self-sufficient, and boldly against the grain. If you ever come across a multimillionaire central Florida cattle baron, chances are he'll be wearing worn jeans, ancient pointed-toed boots, and the straw cowboy hat he bought at Woolworth's for fifty cents in 1953. To dress otherwise would be "getting above his raising" or even worse, sleeping with the enemy (that is, pretending he's Presbyterian and eats only biscuits).

There is pride in that defiance and an inborn conviction that by adhering to the rules of fashion or buying into the myth that money buys happiness -- well, that's the Cracker road to perdition. Soon you'll be putting sugar in your cornbread and drinking chai tea and sending your children to the Ivy League.

It's the thin end of the wedge.

My intention in writing this cookbook is to introduce readers (or for many, to reacquaint you) to this most original American subspecies that has greatly transcended its roots in the Colonial South, and now has children from Miami to Oregon, from Manhattan to California. This wide-ranging diaspora is well-documented along many tried and true migratory lines: Kentucky Crackers moved across the river to Ohio; Arkansans emptied out into Illinois, Arizona, and all points west; Alabamans packed up for Florida and Texas; and with the advent of the Greyhound bus, Georgia and Mississippi Crackers practically inherited the earth.

They left for the money, mostly, to labor in the coal mines of West Virginia and the engine shops of Detroit, and to become webfoot soldiers in service to our benevolent Uncle Sam. ...

I personally think it's time we rise up and introduce ourselves beyond the closest crossroads, and I heartily welcome you into my kitchen to celebrate the three pillars of Cracker life: food and laughter and food.

Relax, unwind, and don't sweat the fine print. The only rule of Cracker cooking is there are no rules. Just come, enjoy, and make these recipes your own. Add pepper, delete pepper; toss in a stick of butter or make it rigidly fat free.The secret to our long survival is our innate Cracker ability to mutate to fit the circumstances. If you're married to a Chinese man and like soy sauce, then throw in some soy sauce. If you're a vegetarian, then substitute tofu. The only things really sacred in Cracker Culture are faith, the love of family, and a certain holy reverence for the gift of telling a story with perfect comedic timing. Everything else is negotiable, including our food, and if you doubt my sincerity, read ahead to my section on wild game feasts and roadkill.
That is just a portion of the engaging and informative introduction to Janis Owen's cookbook in which she celebrates her Cracker heritage.

I'm not a Cracker or even a native Southerner but Owens makes me wish I was one. She has a lengthy and fascinating introduction to Crackers. The introduction has not only Owen's personal take on Crackers but traces the origins of the word and looks at their history as a people. She then proceeds to group her recipes by sections such as for a spring meal or soul food dinner. We not only get ideas of what to serve together but a great essay at the beginning of each section.

Her celebration does not stop at the delightful stories or frank and good natured recipe introductions. She includes black and white family photos with descriptions that give us a sense of place in long ago Florida. Her stories about religion as practiced by family members was both hilarious and insightful, as well as lovingly tolerant. Much more than a collection of recipes, this is an invitation to pull up a chair and see what makes a close knit group of Americans tick. And if you have a piece of Orange Pie while you're doing it, well, that's all the better.

As an additional example, I proffer this tidbit that shows Owen's honesty, openness, and humanity. Yes, I teared up a bit while reading. Grab a copy of the book for yourself and in between cooking meals read the rest of this.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday falls on January 15, and I offer up this soul-inspired menu in his honor and for all the rest of the heroes of the Movement: John Lewis and Ralph Abernathy and every single Yank, Jew, Episcopal pacifist, and student agitator among them. When they put their lives on the line and agitated Jim Crow into oblivion, they freed not only the people of color but also the children of the oppressor, who inherited the gift of diversity and eventually learned a better way (or at least some of them did; I did). It's a favor that can't be forgotten and won't be; not if this Cracker has anything to do with it."

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