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.
I am grateful for the recent review of “Cracker Gothic” on All the Biscuits in Georgia. If you love the South, have lived in the South, or have roots in the South, you will enjoy this website. And here’s a shameless plug, since this is my website and I want you and your friends to find my little orange book: please spend a couple of minutes and read the review of “Cracker Gothic.”
While we’re on the topic of biscuits, let me take this opportunity to opine about the meal that I would probably choose as my last, if it ever comes to that: I’d ask for hot buttered biscuits, sopped in molasses. One of my earliest food-related memories is of being scooped up into my father’s lap at the head of the table, after a meal of fried chicken or pork chops and biscuits. More often than not, those biscuits came from a shiny blue cardboard Pillsbury can, popped open and laid out on a cookie sheet, perfectly uniform cylinders of pale dough. So unlike scratch biscuits with a tender and crumbly interior, these bread products were a construction of mechanically produced mini-layers of dough. Or the biscuits might have been baked from that other convenience food product of the 1960s and 70s—Bisquick. Clumpy flour measured from a cardboard box straight into a bowl, mixed with milk, and scraped from a large spoon into golfball sized blobs. After supper, Dad would pour a puddle of dark molasses in the middle of his dinner plate and place a pat-sized slice of margarine in the middle. With his fork, he’d work the margarine into the molasses, creating a caramel-colored pool, with small bits of yellow floating about. We would then commence, together, to drag our biscuits through the molasses, lifting the dripping morsels into our mouths.
The following biscuit recipe comes from the Jarrett House Cookbook that I purchased at the historic inn in Dillsboro, North Carolina. This recipe produces consistently fluffy, high-rising biscuits, and I’ve used it for over thirty years. My daughter uses this recipe now, and her biscuits are even better than the ones I make.
2 cups plus about 1/4 cup self-rising flour (I prefer White Lily)
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ cup milk
½ cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425. Cut the shortening into the 2 cups flour, working with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in both milks with a fork, and blend well. Transfer dough onto a well-floured board and fold/knead for a few minutes, until the mixture keeps an intact shape and stays firm. You will likely have to add a extra flour while kneading, because this makes a wet dough (up to ¼ cup more flour).
Pat or roll out dough to about ½ inch thick. Cut biscuits with a biscuit-cutter, and place on ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 9 minutes, or until golden brown on top.
These biscuits are best enjoyed hot, buttered, sopped through molasses, while sitting on your daddy’s knee.