Coming Home to Roost: The Chickens of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

“If I had to choose between trees and people, I think I should choose trees.”
~~Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

If you’ve ever read The Yearling, you know the name and work of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Miz Rawlings owned a 72-acre homestead and citrus grove in Cross Creek, Florida, not that she was a native Floridian or anything like that. Her story began there in 1925, when she and her husband, Charles Rawlings, bought a rather delapidated homestead just south of Gainesville, Florida. Like so many writers, she needed a second income and hoped that the orange grove would be the answer to her prayers.

She soon learned, however, that the people of Cross Creek would provide her with enough slices of life to fill several books, sufficient to bring her the fortune she needed and the fame that she didn’t. Cross Creek (1942),  her memoir of her time there,  reveals the daily rhythms of life in a place where time still stands as quiet as an alligator waiting in the long and watery shadows of cypress trees.

Cross Creek straddles a thin peninsula between Lochloosa Lake and Orange Lake, a perfect environment for a woman who some, Samuel Bellman for instance, called “the female Thoreau.”

Entrance to The Yearling restaurant, Cross Creek, Florida (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

A Confederate flag hangs proudly in the Yearling restaurant, the only viable restaurant in this one-light town, and it’s not hard to imagine Miz Rawlings firing up her canary-yellow Buick for supply trips to the nearest big city, Gainesville, Florida. When she passed in 1953, she willed her house and papers to the University of Florida. In 2006, the house became a National Historic Landmark.

A voice for those yearning to live in harmony with the Earth, Miz Rawlings wrote repeatedly of her life in the midst of the orange grove, saying “I do not know how any one can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”

Because she won the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling in 1939, her publisher Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s and many other big names in publishing visited her at her isolated “Cracker” homestead, including stuffy English professors from the University of Florida. On those special occasions, Miz Rawlings or Martha or Idella, her African-American household help, shot the game chickens that ran free in her yard.

I disremember, as we say at the Creek, just when I began shooting chickens for the table. They were my own chickens. They were, and are, game chickens, The breed suits me to a T, because I like to see them running loose instead of cooped in a pen. They are decorative, they take care of themselves except for scratch feed night and morning, they roost in the orange trees, from which the handsome bronze and red rooster assists the coming of the dawn, and they make frying-size chickens, with large meaty breasts, earlier than any other breed. But they are wild as hawks.

Miz Rawlings loved to cook and she “smother-fried” squirrel or quail or doves sometimes, “when the game is of uncertain age.” But her cookbook, Cross Creek Cookery (1942), reflects the far-reaching impact of French cuisine, for Miz Rawlings liked to cook fancier dishes like Baba au Rhum and Lobster Thermidor on her wood-burning stove, not just grits or cooter and gopher (types of turtles).

Coming Home to Roost (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Some interesting chicken facts:
    Fact 1: In the planet are 7000 species of birds, we only domesticated 7 for food. The domestication of chicken started 8000 years ago.
    Fact 3: After humans, foxes are the greatest chicken predators.
    Fact 8: In the fifties rabbit was more popular than chicken in the British tables

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  2. Good morning, Victoria, yes, that bear recipe … interesting. A 300-pound bear sauntered up our driveway about a month ago, but I doubt I would ever shoot it, even if I knew how to. Which I don’t. That recipe basically remains an interesting tidbit of culinary history and that’s all. Where in FL did you grow up, if I might ask?

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  3. As a native of Florida, I teethed on MKR’s writing. My Mom had her cookbook as well. I seem to remember that it included how to cook a bear, which I never found that helpful ;)

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