Ernest Matthew Mickler and White Trash Cooking

Happy Birthday to Ernest Matthew Mickler, born on this day in 1940. Mickler was a product of rural northeastern Florida and best-selling author of “White Trash Cooking” and “Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravins.” He died of AIDS in 1988.

There are plenty of legit and delicious-sounding recipes in these books, mostly in the Desserts and Sweets sections (for example, the Grand Canyon Cake calls for a cup of homemade “whiskey sauce”- recipe on page 86; Bonnie Jean Butt’s Banana Puddin includes a can of crushed pineapple; Covina’s Peaches and Dreams is a divine-sounding concoction of mashed peaches, sugar, whipping cream, and crumbled macaroons). And then there are some entries that are not so much recipes as they are cryptic notes about a favorite food item, like the Kiss Me Not Sandwich: Spread mustard on two pieces of bread. Then slice onion on one and cover with the other. Ice tea helps wash it down.

Both books include a center section full of color photos taken by Mickler – of kitchens, churchyards, fruit stands, a hog-butchering. And there are essays where he captures the feel of the people around him, living their lives, preparing and eating the foods described in his books.

If you don’t have recipes for Thump Salad, Snippy Grits, Quick Loretta, or Deviled Pig’s Feet, then you probably need these books on your shelf.

Florida Book Club Podcast – Cracker Gothic

Florida Book Club Podcast

Cracker Gothic is featured on The Florida Book Club Podcast – Season 3, Episode 1. Catch my conversation with Christopher Nank, where we chat about dead gators, a swamp monster movie, cemeteries, love, healing, and abounding morbid goofiness. If you are a fan of Weird Florida, The Florida Book Club Podcast is for you!

A Florida Legacy at the Harn Museum

Endpaper illustration by N.C. Wyeth, The Yearling

Today, August 8, 2021, is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Just last week, a few miles from Rawlings’s home in Cross Creek, Florida, I had an opportunity to see an extraordinary exhibit at the University of Florida’s Harn Museum – A Florida Legacy: Gift of Samuel H. and Roberta T. Vickers. It was the final week of the exhibit, and my expectations about what I would see were far surpassed. I was delighted at the wide range of artistic expression on display. This gift from Mr. and Mrs. Vickers is certainly a treasure for all Floridians to enjoy for generations to come, and this particular exhibit was only a fraction of the full collection. There were formal portraits, breezy beach scenes, dramatic landscapes, studies of flora and citrus fruit, a few examples of the Florida Highwaymen, and an impressive representation by female artists. Most of the works were by artists not familiar to me, but there were also pieces by some big names in American art – John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth. The staff at the Harn even created a playlist of Florida music on Spotify to accompany the exhibit – so fun! Music by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Frederick Delius, The Buena Vista Social Club, and of course, Jimmy Buffett. The Spotify playlist is at the Harn website link above.

One of the primary pieces that drew me in immediately was the original oil painting by N.C. Wyeth, used as the endpaper illustration for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling. The painting portrays a blonde-headed Jody, the main character of the book, running barefoot along a sandy path in the Florida scrub, followed by his beloved pet deer, Flag.

Movement directly in front of him startled him so that he tumbled backward. The fawn lifted its face to his. It turned its head with a wide, wondering motion and shook him through with the stare of its liquid eyes. It was quivering. It made no effort to rise or run. Jody could not trust himself to move.

He whispered, “It’s me.”

The fawn lifted its nose, scenting him. He reached out one hand and laid it on the soft neck. The touch made him delirious. He moved forward on all fours until he was close beside it. He put his arms around its body. A light convulsion passed over it but it did not stir. He stroked its sides as gently as though the fawn were a china deer and he might break it. Its skin was softer than the white ‘coonskin knapsack. It was sleek and clean and had a sweet scent of grass.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938), p. 170.

Like many of the artists featured in this exhibit, Rawlings came to Florida as a non-native. She observed the people and the natural environment of the Florida scrub, and drew upon her writing skills to weave stories of early American pioneers in an eerie and magical place – a place not easily imagined by those who had never traveled here. This magic is reflected in many of the pieces in the Vickers Collection, as artists from around the country and also Europe traveled to Florida, bringing their paintbrushes, palettes, oils, and canvasses, capturing the many facets of Florida in their art: tropical vegetation, fortress ruins, hidden dark rivers, spectacular beach skies. I hope you were among the people who visited this exhibition. If not, and if you are in Florida, keep an eye out for future exhibits at the Harn Museum of Art. I believe they already have a plan for a permanent rotation of some pieces from the collection in their galleries. I certainly look forward to seeing future exhibits drawn from this special treasury.

Gator-hunting with Bernie

I could not resist jumping on the Bernie Meme Bandwagon with this iconic photograph from Green Cove Springs, Florida. I first saw this photo (without Bernie, of course) on the wall of Spring Park Coffee in Green Cove Springs about eight years ago, and was struck by its strong Southern Gothic vibe. I immediately posted it on my Facebook page as an entertaining oddity. I had no idea what the source of the photo was. Gator-hunting was a common activity on the St. Johns River at the turn of the last century. Hunters made a livelihood from the meat and skins, but it was also a recreational activity for Northern tourists who traveled to escape the cold winters and were curious about the exotic South. Soon after posting the photo to my Facebook page, a cousin commented that the man on the far left was our great-great grandfather. I was dumb-struck. It was a pivotal moment for me, as I was gathering my thoughts and writing essays at that time, which eventually became my memoir, “Cracker Gothic.” In Chapter 18, I do a little mental exploration of what it feels like to realize that I am descended from a dragon-slayer. It doesn’t look like Bernie really enjoyed the outing, though.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born on this date, August 8, 1896, in Washington, D.C. She spent her early years north of the Mason-Dixon line, in D.C., Michigan, and Wisconsin. Marjorie began writing as a young girl, and continued writing into her post-college career, living in New York City, then Rochester, New York, and in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1928, Marjorie and her then-husband, Charles Rawlings, made a bold move and purchased a 72-acre plot of land, including an orange grove, in rural, north-central Florida. The land and its inhabitants enchanted Marjorie, and provided a rich source of inspiration for her writing for the rest of her life. Her neighbors across swamp and hammock were from old pioneer family stock, Florida Crackers who lived from the land, wavering perilously on what would have appeared to any outsider as the brink of abject poverty.

My love for Rawlings’s writing began in high school. Her descriptions of old, primitive Florida resonated with me, the Florida that I experienced growing up in a rural county. Her Florida matched mine: sandy road beds leading through palmetto scrub, shaded by the dark, curving branches of mossy live oaks; friends and family members who lived at the ends of those sandy roads in weathered-wood houses with darkened tin roofs, a clothesline in the side yard, chickens in a wire pen.

I’ve pulled out one of my copies of “Cross Creek” in the last few days, picking it up in the evenings to read a few chapters as Rawlings’s birthday approaches. It has been a long time since I indulged myself in the singular pleasure of reading my favorite author. Here is her accounting of traveling with a friend by horseback through the Florida backwoods of the 1930s:

“We entered the River Styx gently. Surely, death itself must come as quietly. The open fields, bright in the reality of sunlight, gave way easily to pine lands. The pines grew thicker, the sweet scent of their needles rising. The sunlight was spotty, the shadows of the tall trees wider. Here and there a live oak told of changing soil. Then, imperceptibly, we were in deep hammock. Coolness came in on us. The leaves of magnolia and bay trees shut out the sun, as all dark everlasting foliage must shut it out from the silent places of the dead. The hammock merged into cypress swamp. A trumpet vine dropped flamboyant flowers from a lone palm. The blossoms seemed gaudy funereal. There were no birds singing from the cypresses. No squirrels swung in and out of the sepulchral arches of the trees. Out of the dimly defined road a great white bird rose, flapping noiseless wings. It was huge, snow-white as an angel of death, with a wide black mourning band around the edge of the wings. I became aware that the soft dampness of the road had turned into a soft rippling. The whole floor of the forest was carpeted with amber-colored water, alive, moving with a slow, insidious current. We had entered the River Styx.”

Rawlings captured the essence of an old, forgotten wilderness in her writing, and the surprising thing is that it was not her native land. She easily fell into the category of “damned interloper,” a term I use frequently as I observe outsiders moving into the rural corners of my Florida, building stucco-covered McMansions in hideous housing subdivisions. But I’ve come to consider now that maybe that is what’s needed to fully appreciate and describe a place—the eyes of an outsider. Rawlings became immersed in a world that was exotic and foreign; she wrote sensitively about the people and the region, seeking and eventually winning acceptance as an insider. Without her fateful decision to buy a parcel of land in faraway Florida, we all would have missed the opportunity to experience the quiet seasons in the marshes and hammocks, the world of Jody and Flag, the song of the redbird in the scrub.

Midge Endorses Cracker Gothic

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I am over the moon about my latest endorsement! Midge LOVES Cracker Gothic. I just got this text from her: “I couldn’t put it down! Probably because it weighs more than me, and I got stuck!” She also says, “The really great thing about this book is how it coordinates with my Harley outfit! It’s the perfect ensemble for Friday nights at Saloon 17.” Midge is a tough critic, and we all know that between her and Barbie, Midge is the more bookish of the two. So her opinion means a lot! Thanks, Midge!

Bang-a-bonking and Gongoozling in Green Cove Springs

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The St. Johns River at sunrise / Green Cove Springs, Florida

The class from my years at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs that had the longest-lasting effect on me was EH101, a dual credit college-level English course that I took my senior year. Our teacher was Coach Robert DeWitt. Coach DeWitt not only taught English, he was the boys’ basketball coach, a published and award-winning poet, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who had fought in the Normandy invasion of Omaha Beach. He was a large man, tall and bulky, with a graying-blonde comb-over, frequently a quiet smile on his face and a bit of twinkle in his eye. I doubt that most of us who knew him as a coach and English teacher ever fully appreciated what his life had been like before we knew him, and what it was like outside the walls of our high school.

Nonetheless, EH101 stuck with me, and I am ever grateful to Coach DeWitt for introducing me to the study of Greek and Latin roots of the English language. It sparked in me a lifetime fascination with etymology, the study of word origins (not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects…not interested so much in that, thank you very much). I love learning about the roots of words, odd words, extinct words, idioms, colloquialisms, euphemisms, portmanteaus. One of my regrets in life is that I did not embrace this interest early on and pursue it as a vocation. But I do get a lot of joy from reading books about where our words come from, and more recently I’ve taken up listening to podcasts on the topic. 

A Way with Words, Lexicon Valley, and The History of English are some of my favorite podcasts that delve into all things word-nerdy. A relatively new podcast I’ve just discovered is Something Rhymes With Purple, hosted by two Brits – Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth. Listening to their podcast is like eavesdropping on a couple of friends who are chatting whilst sipping Earl Gray tea, in a cozy thatch-roofed cottage nestled in the English countryside. But these two are not uptight, prudish, overly academic word scientists. They have a lot of fun with these podcasts. The episode entitled “Lalochezia” deals exclusively with swear words. For example, you might ponder where the phrase “fornicate under consent of the king” might lead, in a strictly etymological sense, of course. And in case you wondered (I certainly did), lalochezia refers to the exhilarating sense of physical release that one feels upon spewing profanity.

At the end of each episode, Ms. Dent shares a few of her favorite and very obscure words. Two that she mentions together are bang-a-bonk and gongoozle. I will demonstrate their usage here: When I am in Green Cove Springs, I love to bang-a-bonk at Spring Park while I fondly gongoozle the St. Johns River. It usually depends on the weather, but I try to both bang-a-bonk and gongoozle at least once every day. Based on what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people who take the opportunity to bang-a-bonk at the park, especially now that the city has installed new heavy-duty bench swings along the river bank. Once bang-a-bonking is underway in the swings, it’s usually followed by prolonged gongoozling sessions. Sometimes bang-a-bonking and gongoozling occur simultaneously, but it seems to depend entirely on personal taste.
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Bang-a-bonk
means to sit lazily on a riverbank.
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Gongoozle
is to observe things idly, and in particular to enjoy watching a body of water and passing boats.
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Coach DeWitt wrote poems about the St. Johns River, and I’ll share some of them in a later post. I like to think that he, of all people, would have appreciated the idea of bang-a-bonking near the edge of this magnificent river, gongoozling while poetic lines about sky and water, birdcalls, lapping waves and sailboats drifted through his thoughts and onto paper.

 

 

Sulfur Water Runs Through My Memoir

 

 

This is Spring Park in Green Cove Springs. The water feeds from the spring boil into the pool, flows out the deep end into a waterfall, then meanders to the river in the spring run. I cobbled together three short clips to make this video, so it’s not exactly professional grade. But it has music!

The water that emerges from the spring has a high sulfur content, and on most days, even the area surrounding the park has a particular “aroma,” often compared to rotten eggs. If you grew up drinking sulfur water, you might actually prefer stinky water to bland, filtrated water. I sure do. Spring Park has always been a popular place for people to gather, to sit under the huge oak trees, gaze into the dark turquoise-colored spring, enjoy cooling breezes from the river. My parents met at the Park on a blind date, so my origin story is tied to this spring, where clear water bubbles up from the earth. Sulfur water, with its distinct taste and smell, runs through my memoir.