My mother frequently asks me if I want something or other that belongs to her. She's been doing this for more than a decade as she clears out her possessions in anticipation of her death, which will come sooner or later. In the latest phone call she offered me three things, a yearbook, a pin, or a cookbook. I chose the cookbook. It came in my birthday package.
This is no ordinary cookbook. This is the "Cross Creek Cookery" cookbook, written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who also wrote "The Yearling." Have any of you ever seen that classic with Gregory Peck (I wanted to marry that man when I was about 7 or 8 after seeing The Yearling and To Kill A Mockingbird) and Jane Wyman (I always hated those cheekbones, which Hilary Clinton seems to have inherited)?
"Cross Creek Cookery" used to live on the bookshelf above my parents' bed, which says a lot about my mother's cooking. But perhaps that's because it's not so much a cookbook as a book about a life of cooking. Much like MFK Fisher's "The Art of Eating," which I also own. "Cross Creek Cookery" was published in 1942, and very much reflects the Florida of that time. Still very swampy and wild, as were the recipes.
My mother or someone circled several of them: Florida Soft Shell Turtle (Cooter) Soup; Poke Weed, Cross Creek; Swamp Cabbage (Hearts of Palm); Orange Lake Frog Legs; Turtles and Gophers; Coot Liver and Gizzard Pilau. Now I can tell you that my mother never once cooked Cooter, Gopher, Frogs Legs, Swamp Cabbage or Poke Weed. So she must have been amused by the exotic sound of these recipes. There are also recipes for more mundane dishes: Chili Con Carne, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Ginger Snaps.
But it's the tales behind the recipes that are most riveting. How she would shoot ducks every year when in season and the embarrassment of serving duck breast to one professor (perhaps at the University of Florida which was close to her house) who thought very highly of himself. When he had to spit out the lead shot from the duck breast, she could hardly contain herself. How she once hired a manservant named Godfrey from Ocala who fancied himself an intellectual (I think Ocala intellectual is an oxymoron). Godfrey was quite happy to serve Roast Wild Duck but not collard greens and corn bread. He quit when cows broke into Rawling's land and started to eat her oranges.
MFK Fisher's "The Art of Eating" also is full of anecdotes and reminiscences. The two also write about a different sort of cooking, when everything was freshly laid or shot or caught or picked. When supermarkets didn't exist and you either grew and raised your own or went to markets to buy fresh ingredients. No ready meals. No fast food. The preparation and cooking of the meals are as important as the eating. I feel an empathy with these women, not that I come from a culinary background like theirs. But I can appreciate good food and the preparation that goes into it. And I do like to eat.
All I can add is that Nigella Lawson can't write -- or cook -- a patch on these women.