Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, down Home Family Stories and Cuisine

Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, down Home Family Stories and Cuisine


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Though our roots are in the Colonial South, we Crackers are essentially just another American fusion culture, and our table and our stories are constantly expanding — nearly as fast as our waistlines. We aren't ashamed of either, and we're always delighted with the prospect of company: someone to feed and make laugh, to listen to our hundred thousand stories of food and family and our long American past.

Crackers, rednecks, hillbillies, and country boys have long been the brunt of many jokes, yet this old Southern culture is a rich and vibrant part of Amer-ican history. In The Cracker Kitchen, Janis Owens traces the root of the word Cracker back to its origins in Shakespeare's Elizabethan England — when it meant braggart or big shot — through its proliferation in America, where it became a derogatory term to describe poor and working-class Southerners. This compelling anthropological exploration peels back the historic misconceptions connected with the word to reveal a breed of proud, fiercely independent Americans with a deep love of their families, their country, their stories, and, most important, their food.

With 150 recipes from over twenty different seasonal menus, The Cracker Kitchen offers a full year's worth of eating and rejoicing: from spring's Easter Dinner — which includes recipes for Easter Ham, Green Bean Bundles, and, of course, Cracklin' Cornbread — to summer's Fish Frys, fall's Tailgate Parties, and winter's In Celebration of Soul, honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Recounted in Owens's delightful and hilarious voice, the family legends accompanying each of these menus leap off the page. We meet Uncle Kelly, the Prince of the Funny Funeral Story, who has family and friends howling with laughter at otherwise solemn occasions. We spend a morning with Janis and her friends at a Christmas Cookie Brunch as they bake delectable gifts for everyone on their holiday lists. And Janis's own father donates his famous fundamentalist biscuit recipe; truly a foretaste of glory divine.

The Cracker Kitchen is a charming, irresistible celebration of family, storytelling, and good old-fashioned eating sure to appeal to anyone with an appreciation of Americana.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416594840
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 02/10/2009
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Janis Owens is the author of three previous novels and a regional cookbook. The only daughter of a Pentecostal preacher turned insurance salesman, she inherited her love of storytelling from her parents. She lives in Newberry, Florida.

Read an Excerpt


Pat Conroy

It was my great friend Doug Marlette who first brought me news of the amazing Florida novelist Janis Owens. He had met her at a book festival when he was publishing his first novel, The Bridge, and called to tell me he had found a new best friend for both of us. He was reading her first novel, My Brother Michael, and he didn't understand why Janis Owens wasn't famous.When I asked what was so great about her, Doug mentioned her pure authenticity, her comfortableness in her own skin, and her amazing gifts at storytelling. As Doug knew, I have a primordial attraction to the storytellers of the world. I ordered her three novels that night, and by the time I met Janis, I had read My Brother Michael, Myra Sims, and The Schooling of Claybird Catts. The three novels were an astonishment and a dilemma for me. She wrote about the hookwormed, xenophobic redneck South that has received such incessant ridicule in the literature of the South (including my own works) and in Hollywood movies that shiver with pleasure when their villains speak with those phony Southern accents. Janis used the term Cracker with affection and great understanding, and as I read her, I understood that she was awakening ghosts in my own kingdom that I would sooner or later have to interrogate if I was ever to understand the reign of both beauty and confusion in the life of my own mother, Peg Conroy.When I finished reading the three books, I called Doug Marlette and echoed his question: "Why isn't Janis Owens world famous?"

When I read her cookbook, it was a revelation. She would refer to herself and her family as Crackers and Rednecks with pride and affection and a great tenderness. If I had ever called my family or my cousins rednecks, I think it doubtful that my mother would have talked to me again. Though my mother hailed from an Alabama family whose Cracker credentials were in perfect order, she spent much of her energy and all of her life in denial of this unassailable fact. She became a brilliant historian of her own life, and almost nothing she said about herself was true.

After my mother read Gone With the Wind, and after her total immersion in the character of Scarlett O'Hara, my mother reinvented herself. The young girl who had previously answered to the name of Frances changed her middle name to Margaret and ordered her family to call her Peggy, after her new heroine Margaret "Peggy" Mitchell. I learned this story on the day we buried my mother in the Beaufort National Cemetery. It was the same day my grieving stepfather, Dr. John Egan, said between sobs that it was "such an honor to be married to a Southern aristocrat." My mother was an open-field runner against her past. Because I adored everything about her, I think I let her turn me into the same thing.

Janis Owens's cookbook is a love letter written to celebrate the poor white people of the American South who were my mother's people and my own. Since Janis is incapable of writing a bad sentence, her cookbook is a joy to read and a pleasure to return to again and again. She has produced a Cracker Escoffier, or a White-Trash Julia Child, that is hilarious and charming. Her tour of Southern food seems definitive to me. She does not gussy up any of her recipes for stylistic or culinary reasons. It makes you hungry just to flip through the pages of this high-spirited and userfriendly book. It also took me to long-forgotten memories of my past.

I've often written about my mother's failure as a Southern cook. As a housewife in the fifties, my mother discovered the labor-saving pleasures of frozen food. Even today, I cannot pass a frozen chicken-pot pie without becoming bulimic. My brother Mike has a freezer full of them and eats them with relish whenever he feels nostalgic for Mom. Frozen macaroni and cheese is an abomination unto the Lord to me.When I escaped my mother's kitchen and entered The Citadel, I discovered that I had never eaten spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and a whole produce department of other vegetables.Most cadets complained bitterly about the food in the mess hall, but I thought it was the finest food I had ever eaten, a cornucopia of guilty pleasures to discover and savor.

Yet, Janis's book caused me to remember some of the Southern dishes that my mother did well in the early years of her marriage. She could make perfect cornbread in a black skillet, and her fruit pies were legendary. Once a week, she composed a velvety lemon bisque that I could have inhaled with a straw. But it was in Piedmont, Alabama, and Orlando, Florida, that I feasted on the foods that Janis so lovingly describes in this cookbook. In Piedmont, my aunts and cousins would cook for hours preparing lunch for the men still in the fields. The meals were enormous, sensuous, and completely satisfying. Throughout the meal the women would burst out of the kitchen with some new steaming vegetable or fresh supply of biscuits. The gravies were heavenly, the fried chicken indescribable. Those were some of the happiest meals of my childhood.

In Orlando Aunt Helen and Uncle Russ would invite my family to the picnics at their Baptist church, and again, the recipes of Janis Owens were spread before my eyes in what seemed like endless profusion. When I asked my mother why Baptists ate so much better than Roman Catholics, she told me to shut up. I begged Aunt Helen to invite us to every church picnic that the Baptists organized, and if so, I promised not to fidget when she read from the Bible to my cousins, the Harper boys, each night. In Orlando I learned about congealed salads, aspics, deviled eggs, cole slaw, country ham, fried catfish, and dozens of other dishes that I had never encountered before.When we left Orlando, I thought that Baptists were the happiest, most well-fed people on earth. Later I'd tell my mother that I was thinking of becoming a Baptist so I would have lifetime access to those picnics, but Mother told me to hush up; if my father heard me, he'd kill me. I never brought up the subject again.

While reading several of the recipes in Cracker Kitchen, I burst out laughing because I'd never come across a recipe for roasted armadillo, rattlesnake, possum, or fried cooter. The world doesn't get any more Cracker than that, but I can't help but think that Janis is just showing out to make the outlander squeal. One of my favorite chapters is dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. It is her chapter on soul food and its intimate connection to Cracker cooking.

Janis Owens writes, "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."

When I came to those words, their heartfelt generosity stunned me.What a largesouled woman Janis Owens is! I never thought I would read such a stirring declaration in a book celebrating the Cracker nation. I wrote a cookbook in 2004 that I modestly called The Pat Conroy Cookbook. In it you can find recipes for Duck Pappardelle with Black Truffle Sauce, Saltimbocca alla Romana, Soup de Poisson, and...well, you get my drift. Like my mother, I've been running away from the South my whole life, and I'll have to do a lot of walking backwards to get home again.

Janis Owens's cookbook is unpretentious, yet it sugarcoats nothing about the Cracker culture she celebrates and loves. The book is pitch perfect in tone and execution. She tells of a hidden, mysterious Florida that few people know about, and in so doing has written the best cookbook based in central Florida since Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek Cookery. I wish my mother were alive so I could show her all the good times, and good food, that we missed.

Copyright © 2009 by Janis Owens


Let me begin with a big country welcome to my kitchen. Just come on in and don't bother with the dog — he don't bite. Kick off your shoes and make yourself at home. Pour yourself some tea (there in the refrigerator; it should be cold) and brace yourself for a good feed, as Crackers aren't shy about eating but go for it full throttle, in it for the sheer, crunchy glory.

Though our roots are in the Colonial South, we are essentially just another American fusion culture, and our table and our stories are constantly expanding, nearly as fast as our waistlines. We aren't ashamed of either, and we're always delighted with the prospect of company: someone to feed and make laugh, to listen to our hundred-thousand stories of food and family and our long American past.

For Crackers are as indigenous to the New World as long-leafed tobacco, though we've never really been the toast of the town.We're the Other South: eighth-generation children of immigrants who came to America on big wooden ships long before the Civil War and steadily moved inland, the pioneers of three centuries.We mostly settled along the southern half of the eastern seaboard, long before the War of Secession, but we never darkened the doors of Tara or Twelve Oaks unless we were there to shoe mules or to work as overseers. We lived and thrived outside plantation society, in small towns and turpentine camps and malarial swamps. We're the Rednecks, the Peckerwoods, the Tarheels, and the Coon-ass, and a hundred other variations besides. We are the working-class back that colonial America was built upon, the children of its earliest pioneers, who have lately tired of hiding our light under a bushel, and have said to hell with all the subterfuge. We are who we are, and if you're curious what that exactly is, then pull up a chair, and I'll walk you through a bit of our history before we eat — or better yet, we can eat while we talk. Crackers have an inborn genius for both.

Before I begin, let me take a moment to validate my own Cracker pedigree and credentials, as I am what Princess Diana was to the English: a modern female scion of an ancient line born in rural Florida when Destin was a shallow, nameless bay and Orlando the shy younger sister of central Florida's true metropolis, Lakeland. I spent my youth moving here and yon in Louisiana and Mississippi, following Daddy's churches. (He was an Assembly of God preacher when I was born; later, a policy man with the Independent Life Insurance Company.) When I was nine, we returned to the heart of Cracker Florida, to Ocala. It was then a kitschy little tourist town where legendary herpetologist and showman Ross Allen ran what he called (without irony) a Reptile Institute out at Silver Springs.

Like most mid-century Crackers, we'd moved out of dog-trot houses by then and had traded up to a flat tract house in a treeless cookie-cutter subdivision, surrounded on all sides by recent Florida emigrants of every stripe. Rural Florida was still segregated back then, and from outward appearances we looked as assimilated as our white neighbors, except for the fact that we ate squirrel and talked like raccoons and carried pocket knives.We were something of a puzzle to everyone, even ourselves, as there were no accurate archetypes in contemporary American culture that reflected our particular past. Our great-great-grandfathers had fought and died for the Cause, and though we wept buckets at the railroad depot scene in Gone With the Wind, we had few emotional and historic ties to the ever-popular, ever-mythic Plantation South. There were no mincing Scarletts in our family line, but a lot of bonnet-clad, ironwilled matriarchs who dipped snuff, were fond of cane fishing, and on a lean day would go out, shotgun in hand, and shoot a flock of blackbird for supper.

We self-referred as Rednecks, Hillbillies, and Country Boys, shying away from the time-honored description: Crackers, as it was a name that had, in the latter half of the century, taken on a sinister connotation. Though the word had been in circulation for time out of mind, it had come to describe a portion of the population that was the nemesis of the social-gospel, julep-sipping South. Crackers were the Bad Guys in the Civil Rights Movement: crew-cut, toothless miscreants who wore George Wallace tie clips and used the N-word in combination with every adjective on earth. They were ill-read, over-churched, whiskey-addicted; prone to incest and hookworm.

We were some of that, and some not. (My Cracker grandfather's best friend was a black sharecropper, and a fellow black sawyer at the heading mill had once saved his life by lifting a truck off his chest.) Black people were intertwined in our history in a way that is hard to explain, and Old-school Crackers would willingly own up to mixed blood in a humorous manner ("a black cat in our alley"). But for the most part, having so much as a drop of black blood was taboo. Being white was our ace in the hole, you might say, and the single characteristic that set us apart from our fellow poor folk, though middle-and upper-class whites treated us with (if possible) more contempt than they did people of color.

We had no apparent excuse for our bad press and our bad teeth, and we returned their contempt in spades, with a whole encyclopedia of insults to describe upper-and middle-class whites: Big Shots, High-Hats, Collars, and the like. We preferred our own company to that of outsiders, and we maintained our ties with the land, even after our mass exodus into town, where we chased paychecks in sawmills and lumberyards, turpentine camps, and cattle runs in the early years of the century.

Our role as cultural outsider was so ingrained by then that we didn't overly labor to explain our histories to our fellow townies. We lived lives centered around our churches, marrying within them and giving much credence to the Lord's command to "come out from among them."We came out, and we stayed out. It wasn't till the latenineteen seventies, when Disney moved to Florida and every Yankee on earth built a condo on the coast, that the lily-skinned Florida-born natives began to self-refer as Crackers as a way of separating their old Florida culture from the flood of Yankee transplants.

In this translation, being a Cracker meant your family had lived in Florida for at least three generations, had Southern roots, and among themselves, still talked like raccoons. It became a source of pride, and with Jimmy Carter's ascension to the presidency in the mid-nineteen seventies, the word gained national recognition as a way to describe white rural Southerners, though the root meaning was hotly debated and still frequently used as an insult, and no one really knew where it came from.

Well I, for one, found out, and here is the straight story on how we came to be named. It is not for the flat, salt-sprinkled bread baked by Nabisco, but from an ancient root word that dates back to Elizabethan England meaning "entertaining conversation" or "braggart" (the same root word for crack, as in crack a joke). It appears in Shakespeare and possibly the Bible (haven't nailed that one down yet, but Daddy's still looking), and like every other word in American English, it eventually evolved to a hardy noun, and an insulting one at that.

Long before the first cannon was fired on Fort Sumter, Cracker was slang for poor people; Corn Crackers so poor they only ate cheap corn instead of ground white flour. Slaves also used the term with contempt to describe the poor white overseers who cracked the whip on them in the fields. In pioneer Florida, the term was used to describe cow chasers or cowmen (never cowboys; they dislike the term) who hunted the remnants of the scrubby Spanish cattle in the sand and palmetto scrub. These lean, stringy cousins to the Texas longhorn weren't native to the state but had originally come to Florida in the mid-sixteen hundreds courtesy of the Spanish explorers. By the mideighteenth century they roamed free in the wilderness like wild deer and had to be driven from the palmetto scrub with whips that made a cracking sound; hence, Cracker.

By the turn of the century, the word had entered the American lexicon as a generic term for poor white people; though historically speaking, the original Crackers — corn eaters and cow hunters alike — were a generous mix of Scotch-Irish, Native Americans of all stripes, Spanish Conquistador, African slave, and even a pinch of the exotic — Moravian immigrant and Jewish trader. In pioneer central Florida, there were plenty of African American and Native American cowmen, though they were the exception. For the most part only white people were called Crackers, sometimes with affection, but mostly as an ethnic slur, roughly equivalent to the modern-day "trailer trash," or the like, connoting laziness or sorriness, or (by black people) ignorant bigotry.

The word and stereotype were so established by mid-century, that the figure of the ignorant Cracker made colorful entry into the literature of the day, a prime example being Bob Ewell, in the modern American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. If you have a copy on hand, flip to the scene about two-thirds of the way through, where Bob is on the witness stand at Tom's rape trial. His wisecracking, rooster-proud, racist demeanor is the personification of the Ignorant Cracker; as is Faulkner's Flem Snopes; Mr. Greenleaf in Flannery O'Connor's short story of the same title; and Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. (Ernest T is, of course,much more lovable; Mr. Griffith being a North Carolina Cracker himself. They call themselves Tarheels up there, and why, I do not know.)

If mid-century Crackers were upset by their less-than-sterling reputation in American letters, they kept it to themselves, as the running leitmotif of Cracker history is movement and survival and disdain for public opinion. They have always been a population in perpetual movement: They left Scotland for Ireland; then Ireland for the east coast of the New World; then inland into the Appalachians; and eventually down to the Forever Frontiers of Indian Territory in the deep South. They fought yellow fever,mosquitoes, and a lot of insulted Native Americans on the way. Though they never really got on with the mosquitoes, they did marry a few hard-working Indians, and infused a good bit of Native American culture into their own Celtic stripe, along with every other ethnicity in Colonial America, which is just about every ethnicity you can name.

Thanks to their overweening fertility, they had as many children as they had hounds (which is to say: a passel of young'uns), and their best energies were given to basic survival: making a crop and feeding their families and bringing home a little cash for the store-bought items. Whenever they weren't scratching to make a dime, they gathered anywhere they could sit or squat (early Crackers were great squatters) — at country stores or crossroads or on the edge of a cut-over field — and while they whittled on a stick, they talked their heads off. For though they were famously taciturn around strangers, among themselves Crackers have always been — as Shakespeare surmised — big talkers, quick to gossip, to advise, or pass on a colorful family tale. I can personally vouch for the authenticity of the myth of the lovable old apron-clad Cracker Grannie, telling the young'uns stories on the porch.

If you doubt me, here is pictorial evidence: a shot taken in '62 when I was a toddler, sitting in my rocking chair in front of Grannie's house in Marianna. Her rocking chair, temporarily vacant, is behind me, casting a shadow on the far wall — a very long shadow, indeed. (Ah, metaphor! Where would Southern letters be without them?)

Look closely at the yard at my feet, and you'll see not a blade of grass. It's a swept yard, identical to old Bob Ewell's, though certainly the comparisons end there (Grannie was 100 percent Atticus Finch).

Storytelling (or telling "yarns" as it is sometimes called, though yarning has talltale implications and yarns are understood to be exaggerated) is a hallmark of Cracker life, as is our other chief source of entertainment: church. Whether it was the Scotch-Irish or the Native American influence, I really don't know, but I do know that Crackers have a fixation with religion, especially among the womenfolk, and an equally wide streak of superstition.

Since the Great Awakening, we've been mostly fundamentalist Christians; though historically speaking, Cracker Christianity is rigid with fear and shot through with the odd myth and a hundred little cautions and warnings. I figure this dark and brooding interpretation of Scripture sprang from the grind of pioneer lives lived on the cutting edge of death and wholly at the mercy of the elements. Corn is a water crop, and without irrigation a drought could wipe it out completely, as could a marauding deer (read The Yearling), a single hailstorm, or something as simple and commonplace as a late or early frost. There were no guarantees of longevity for the humans either.

Cracker life is built around a nearly pathological love of family, and in the days before penicillin and mosquito containment, a woman could lose a beloved baby to simple diarrhea, or a devoted husband to pneumonia, in a single day's time. My greatgrandfather John Jackson went out a few days before Halloween in 1918 to gather his livestock in a storm, caught a cold that turned into pneumonia, and died two days later. His wife, my great-grandmother Emma, went on to remarry, and within the decade, her youngest son, Charlie-Boy, got a minor scrape in the field hoeing cotton and died of blood poisoning almost as quickly.

Every Cracker on earth can tell you of a dozen such tragedies, not from the distant past, but stark, unending domestic tragedy that happened in this century, within living memory. Our pioneer ancestors walked a fine line between heaven and earth and lived their lives accordingly, with much energy given to making right with the Lord, hoping that, with His divine favor, they could beat the odds and raise their children to maturity, or at least make a crop. Hence their love of the Eternal, and their particular affinity with Jesus, who loved His Mama and didn't take crap off the rich folk. They embraced Him with their entire hearts, and let me tell you, their love went deep (as does mine, now that I think of it). The women of Grannie's generation practically wallpapered their houses with Jesus pictures — of Him praying in the garden, knocking at the door, pondering Jerusalem. When my cousin Marcie and I went to clean out Aunt Izzy's house after Uncle Gene died, Marcie stood in the front door and asked incredulously, "What are we gonna do with all these Jesus pictures?" because standing in the front room alone, there were about eleven of them in plain sight.

I took a good many of them and have at least four hanging on my walls today. I personally think they're a little glimpse of Celtic superstition — the Cracker equivalent to Irish women's rosaries over the bed — but I never would have told Grannie that. (She would have suffered pangs of guilt over "worshiping graven images" and lost her joy in them and walked around like more of a crushed beetle than she already was.)

Many Crackers started out Baptist or shouting Methodist, but in the black belt and in heavily Native American areas, the Pentecostals gained ground in the early years of the century and the image of the barking-mad Cracker Holy Roller was born (of which I am a proud, card-carrying member). Their early church services were held in "brush arbors" and on the camp meeting circuit. Just between you and me (that means, don't tell Daddy), they drew much from Native American Green Corn tradition and African mysticism, overlaid on fundamentalist Christianity (and not a whit less valid for either).

Though these wild-eyed brush-arbor fanatics were the object of humor at the hands of Southern mainstream religion (we're talking Presbyterians here), Crackers themselves were tolerant of odd religious fancy. If an individual maintained what was called "clean living," he or she was respected whether Mormon, Pentecostal, Jewish, or Catholic. People were judged on their strictness of adherence, and if they fell short (Mormons drinking coffee, Jews eating bacon, Pentecostals sipping whiskey), they immediately lost their good reputations and cloaks of respectability. Where religion was concerned, extreme was good. Any talk of moderation was considered the rankest compromise, the lukewarm destined to be momentarily spewed out — a metaphor familiar in Cracker life, where everyone dipped or chewed. Spit cups were common, and things were constantly being spewed out.

In time, religion became the backbone of the Cracker social calendar. Beyond the twice- and, sometimes, three-times-a-week services, church life offered plenty of public interaction: ice-cream socials and dinner-on-the-grounds, and, of course, your steady round of funerals, which were attended in honor of the dead and for the opportunity to eat some really good cream corn. Most of the meetings were punctuated by food and laughter, as the thing with Cracker religion is that it is both sacred and selfdeprecating. The best example I can think of is my old Pentecostal, fire-breathing Daddy, who runs a ham radio net called Ambassadors for Christ.

I tell a lot of Daddy stories when I speak, and I was being interviewed by Hank Connors on his radio show at the University of Florida, when he asked me on-air if Daddy was still a preacher.

"Oh, yeah," I assured him. "He's an Ambassador for Christ."

Hank started at my response, then hit the cough button and lowered his voice to ask, "What did you say?"

"Daddy," I repeated, "he's an Ambassador for Christ. That's the name of his show — his radio net."

Hank was visibly relieved. "I thought you said he was a bastard for Christ," he murmured, offering an opening no self-respecting Cracker could resist.

I grinned and assured him, "Oh, well, he's that, too."

We laughed so hard that the rest of the interview was just about inaudible, and when I got home, I hastened to call Daddy and repeat the conversation word for word. To his credit, Daddy laughed as long and hard as we had, without a blink of offense. The phrase "no laughing matter" is really not applicable to much in Cracker life.

And lest I paint the culture as overly sanctimonious (sanctimoniousness is poison to any self-respecting Cracker), let me point out that there was always, inevitably, a large and rowdy faction of unbelievers, anti-believers, and out-and-out doubters, who were casually referred to as backsliders, heathens, and sinners. Even the most respectable Cracker family had a few — easily identified by their cigarettes, tattoos, and preference for gathering at jooks and barrooms, where they drank more whiskey than iced tea (and from the same-sized tumblers). Their heathen tradition was even wilder than that of the Pentecostals (read Harry Crews), but like gopher turtles and rattlesnakes, the two cultures cohabited nicely, in no small part because the sinners were under no delusion about their fallen state and had every intention of getting saved two minutes before they died. (It only took two lines of prayer. How hard could it be?) In the meanwhile, they lived by a credo that could be best summarized by the inscription one of my brother's heathen friends wrote in his high-school yearbook: Get drunk, raise hell, go naked.

I think that pretty much sums it up.

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've often wondered if there are any reliable statistics for how much of the military sprang from the Cracker South, for when I was a child, I never met a man who hadn't done at least a few stints in the army. These young Crackerlings roved about Europe and the Pacific theater and military bases all over the world, and when they returned home, a good many of them brought home foreign war brides. I'm not sure these young women — born in worn-torn cultures and worshipful of their American liberators — quite knew what they were getting into when they got involved with yarn-spinning Cracker men who wouldn't know the truth if it spit in their face.

Case in point is one of my husband's great-uncles, who fell in love with a comely German lass, whom he regaled with stories of his rich Southern heritage — all Tara and Twelve Oaks and polished marble floors.According to Grannie Hart, he took care to marry her "over there," and when he brought her home to meet the folks in northeast Arkansas, her shock was apparent to all.

"You should have seen her face when she come in the door," Grannie recalled with a shake of her head. "You could see her feathers fall."

I have an inkling many a naive war bride's feathers similarly fell, but no matter. The end result was another dab of fusion culture and an assimilation that has made Cracker DNA more diverse and widespread than one would first assume. We might seem a small, inbred minority, but over the years, we've entered the American mainstream with a vengeance and produced our share of cultural icons (Elvis comes to mind) and a few presidents (I won't name any names, but you know who you are) and a whole lot of KFC franchises, from sea to shining sea.

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.

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.

We're like cockroaches in that respect:We emerge, we forage, and we momentarily disappear, but not forever. If a nuclear holocaust ever takes place, the Crackers will be the first to crawl out of the rubble, looking for a pot so they can boil some grits to settle their nerves and offer a play-by-play of what they were doing the moment the bomb dropped. ("Was out standing in the yard, hanging out the wash, when boom it went. Shook the pecans right off the limbs.")

There will be a marked lack of real astonishment in the story, as Crackers have seen and done it all.We've won battles and lost them; raised children and adopted a few more. We got spunk, we got color, and there is nothing we love better than discussing our wonderfulness, so here we go.

I'm beginning with a most favored season in Crackerdom: Spring, with a few old favorites and modern twists,most of which have come into the culture via the infusion of modernity, primarily the birth of the citrus industry in central Florida, Southern Living, and Gone With the Wind. We were charmed by the former, and very nearly seduced into mass assimilation by the latter, wanting to move up to Tara and surrender our origins for a chance at life in the Big House. You know: trade our mules in for horses and marry one of the Tarleton twins and publicly renounce cornbread in favor of biscuits. (And when and, oh, when has that sort of cultural closeting ever paid off? Let me tell you something, ladies: Stuart Tarleton would be a fine husband in good sailing, but the first time you served him armadillo, he wouldn't touch it. He'd tell you to take your Cracker ass back to the kitchen and make him a julep, and you'd have no choice but to stab him with the same butcher knife you used to skin the armadillo, then bury him under the scuppernong arbor where you buried your first husband and had hoped to one day bury that bitch Scarlett, who was always mincing around, stealing other women's men.)

But enough of my yakking.Here's what you come for: Our occasionally nutritious and always delicious table, which is very nearly holy in Cracker Culture, a well-set table a sure sign of clean living and high moral fiber. It is one of the highest compliments any Cracker can get, male or female, rich or poor: they set a fine table. The other is: they come from good people. And the last: their children have done well for themselves. I like to think that I have admirably attained all three, or at least two of the three, on a good day.

You can, too. Here's how.

Copyright © 2009 by Janis Owens

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Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, Down Home Family Stories and Cuisine 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
what a charming cookbook! beautifully written and executed. janis owens is one of the great southern writers. and she can cook, too!!!
MinnesotaReader More than 1 year ago
In The Cracker Kitchen, Janis Owens has brilliantly combined a cookbook of delicious Southern recipes with heartwarming family stories. Each mouth-watering recipe is introduced by a very humorous family anecdote. Along with the homespun recipes, she thoughtfully provides entire special occasion menus. She begins each menu with its delightful cracker history. Many charming black-and-white family photos warmly depict many of her ancestors...sometimes intimately sharing a meal. She reveals many secrets of good old-fashioned Southern-style cooking. Ms. Owens has magnificently written a loving tribute to her family in a style that is both entertaining and inspiring. I absolutely loved this book. Written in an appealing folksy style, I was truly captivated. I learned its not just about cooking a tasty meal, but its about the memories of sharing it with a table of loved ones. I highly recommend this wonderful cookbook for yourself and all your friends!!
Bunner More than 1 year ago
I don't normally sit & read a cookbook but this one had so many wonderful stories accompanying each recipe that I couldn't help myself. Before I knew it I was making a list of friends that I knew would enjoy receiving this book as a gift. My next list was which recipes I would make first & who the lucky diners would be. I've already made several of the dishes from the book & each one has been a hit.