A Sense of Taste, A Sense of Place,

With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food.  That’s great because I love to eat; but awful because I’m a lousy cook.  I mean world-class lousy.  I’m the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out.  I’m slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it’s hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, “When it comes to cooking, I’d rather read.”  Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap.  When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul.

Cross Creek Cookery

I’ve written before about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her great love-affair with central Florida.  One of the most remarkable chapters of her wonderful book, Cross Creek, recounts Marjorie’s own development from lousy to gifted cook and her joy learning Southern cuisine. The only problem was the book was published during World War II and her rhapsodies on the Joys of Southern Food made an awful lot of American soldiers homesick.  One fellow, who loved food, wrote to her saying, “Lady, [after reading your book] I have never been through such agonies of frustration.” In response, Marjorie published “Cross Creek Cookery”, a collection of recipes and anecdotes that are equally enjoyable.  For example, there is the time she confused an electric ray with flounder and shocked herself trying to catch it.  There is also the tale of Godfrey, a Florida version of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson who considers serving collard greens beneath his dignity. (Godfrey must have been out of his mind; collard greens are the first vegetable that made me fall in love with Southern Cooking.)  Cross Creek Cookery is the first cookbook that made me laugh out loud.

Recipies of My Life

 

But literature is more than love and laughter, and so is cooking, as Pat Conroy makes clear.  His cookbook, describes not just the art of preparing food he came to adore, but how food can become a short-cut to memories of other times, places, and people.  I know that myself; a taste of grouper, garnished with almond slices and stuffed with grapes, takes me back to an Augustine restaurant and one of the best dinners and nights of my life.  Pat takes his readers through his memories of life and garnishes the experience with recipes that recreate the scenes.   Here are the soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad of Beaufort, South Carolina, the Scottiglia and Saltimbocca of Italy, and Eugene Walter’s Pepper obsession. But more than anything, Conroy makes clear how close good writing is to good food.  Both are the results of creative thinking and memory, distilled to levels of clinical precision.  A recipe, Conroy says, is just a story that ends in a good meal.  That is a philosophy that could make me want to learn to cook.
Tell me about the cookbooks you love to read and re-read!

Home Story

All stories are about being human and all humans need a spot they can call home. More than shelter or status symbol, “home” is part of a person’s identity and many writers are known for theirs.  Faulkner didn’t stir from Rowan Oak unless he was forced to.  Daphne du Maurier’s obsession for Menabilly changed the course of her life.  But both of these homes are grand houses of great estates, spots most of us could not relate to.  So I traveled to Cross Creek, the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a simpler structure if no less beloved. In fact, so much of MKR’s happiness and identity were tied to her home, she wrote one of her best books about it.  And, from the moment you enter her gate, you can see both Cross Creek and the writer are cherished by those who remember them.

City-bred, Marjorie didn’t flourish as a writer until she moved to the backwoods of Florida and Cross Creek is still off the beaten path.  No disoriented tourists, adrift from Disney, will turn up at its borders. No major hotels or even gift shops entice explorers with the “Cross Creek Experience”. You have to look for the place, but it’s worth the search. Instead, of the routine showmanship of manufactured amusements, you get something better: a view of a remarkable person’s home and life as she wrote about and lived it.
There is the porch with its writing table, complete with typewriter and ashtray.  According to the tour guide, Jack, Marjorie composed at this spot until her books brought her fame and a collection of unwanted visitors, eager to watch her actually write. (I can’t think of any activity with greater potential to bore the spectator or irritate the subject.)  
Here is the living room, equipped with fireplace and bookshelves, the very definition of cozy.  Marjorie planned for Cross Creek to become a writer’s retreat after her death but, the tour guide states, visiting authors made the spot a party spot instead.  When the state took over ownership of the home, Marjorie’s widower removed her furniture from storage and returned them to their spots in the house.  The chairs and tables fit the room so well, you would have believed they never left there.
Marjorie’s kitchen would earn the praise from today’s interior designers for its pantry and prerequisite farmhouse sink but the stove astonishes me.  How did this woman find the energy to run a farm, write books and become a gourmet cook using this wood-fed contraption?  Yet she did, and wrote her own cookbook as well, which I own but refuse to cook from.  Marjorie’s greatest strength was her drive but I am a person with limits.  
Another of the writer’s strengths was her honesty and the guides at Cross Creek honor that, noting Marjorie’s inconsistencies, and character flaws along with her virtues. Stubborn and volatile, her character was as uneven as the floor in her bathroom (made famous in her essay, “The Evolution of Comfort”) and she made many mistakes. These errors cost her dearly at times and she faced many, if not all, of them in hindsight. But she was an individual, vibrant as the land she wrote about, comfortable and homey as her living room chairs.   
Most of all, she was a person who understood the value of “home” wherever it turned out to be. She invested her fortune, her talent, her dedication and sometimes her sanity in the house and orange grove of Cross Creek while recognizing herself as a mere temporary tenant. In turn, the spot brought her poverty, wealth, friends, opponents, joy, frustration, unending work, heartbreak and a spiritual as well as physical home. Oh, and it gave her her writer’s voice.
All in all, not a bad deal.

When home is a place where you’ve never been: Cross Creek

William Shakespeare, that quotable fellow, said “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”   That’s how I feel about home.  Many people I know are raised with a real sense of identity, knowing who they are and where they belong long before they learn how to read.  That place of origin, for good or for ill, is home, undeniable as DNA.  Others have to make a place for themselves in this world and a few of us enter a strange site and realize with amazement that this place centers us like no other.  It’s a shock, like first falling in love, and it changes the folks who experience it.  That realization of finding home is central to Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s book Cross Creek  because it’s not just about the first heady days of romance.  Cross Creek is the love affair between a discoverer and place.

The two were an unlikely match.  Mrs. Rawlings was a thirty-two year old journalist whose career and human marriage were both showing wear but not many signs of success.  She was educated, politically liberal and although she could write, she had not found her “voice”, that prerequisite of transcendent writers.  Cross Creek was an undisturbed pocket of the Old South populated by black and white families who eked out an living on the land, through farming or sharecropping, hunting, trading or fishing.  Probably no one believed she would stay.   The greatest trait both parties shared was stubbornness.

Well that, and a love of the place.  It must have held beauty beyond measure because Marjorie stuck there without friends, without encouragement and soon, without her husband (who couldn’t tolerate the isolation) or her dog (who hated the heat.)   Marjorie tolerated it all, including the bugs and the outhouse, adapted, repaired and plugged away at fiction that wasn’t getting published.  She was also writing to an editor about her neighbors.   Those letters mark the beginning of her voice.

A key part of the success of Cross Creek is Marjorie’s opinion of her neighbors.  She recognizes their residential seniority and values each individual for the merits in his or her own character.  She also recognizes her own fallibility and admits to her many mistakes.  That humility told the neighbors she might be be worth teaching.

From these new friends and the things they taught her, Marjorie gleaned the material for her best known work, The Yearling  (when her editor suggest she write a boy’s story set in the Florida scrub, she replied to his suggestion, saying, “How calmly you sit in your office and tell me to write a classic!”  Irony, thy name is Marjorie.)  Cross Creek was the follow-up, a love song to the area she loved.

As in so many romances, the one between Marjorie and Cross Creek did not make it to the finish line.  First, she remarried and living with her second husband meant living some seventy miles away.  Far sadder is the fall out that came from this book.  One of the people Marjorie wrote of with affection and respect took offense over the description and sued for libel.  The case went on for years, dividing the community and draining the parties.  Marjorie stayed away after that.

In the end, Frost described it best: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  When Marjorie died, she was buried in a cemetery less than five miles from the place she’d recognized as home.  Other Creek residents are spending their eternity there including the woman who sued her.  Thus far, the residents seem to be keeping their peace.

Marjorie wrote she was not the real owner at Cross Creek noting, “Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.” Instead, she belonged to this place that defined her, defied her and nourished her soul.  For good or for ill, Cross Creek became part of her, like DNA.  Call that what you like, I think it means “home”.

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