Although I’d read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Yearling (1938), in high school, I came to admire Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s work more via the great unifier – food. I bought a paperback copy of Cross Creek Cookery nearly forty years after Charles Scribner’s Sons first published it. Now the spine on my cheap copy splits nearly in two when I pick up its acid-specked pages. Always, as if to tell me what to cook on any given night, the loose pages pop open to Spoonbread, one of my favorite dishes in all the world. A rip at the bottom of another page is where I know I’ll find Idella’s Crispy Biscuits.* A first edition would bring tears to my eyes, but my wallet would become mighty deflated.
It was Cross Creek, also published in 1942, that really lit the fire of my passion for Rawlings’s work and for the place itself. Whenever I visited my parents in Gainesville, Florida, I would trek, as on pilgrimage, to her house in Cross Creek, Florida, now managed by the Florida State Parks system.
Cross Creek, like a Brownie Instamatic camera, preserves a slice of American life at a time of great racial inequality. It is a painful book to read, if read through glasses tinted with present-day sensibilities. At the same time, if the reader thinks of the book as a historical document – which it is – the portrait of life in rural Florida yields amazing information about how people went about their daily routines and interacted with each other. Ms. Rawlings took on the role of a fly on the wall. Most of the time, anyway. Cross Creek became her muse.
Writing about and revealing one’s own thoughts and actions are one thing. But writing about and revealing the details other people’s lives is quite another. In 1946, Zelma Cason brought suit against Ms. Rawlings for invasion of privacy. In Cross Creek, Ms. Rawlings described Ms. Cason as an “ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary.” On appeal, the court ordered Ms. Rawlings to pay Ms. Cason $1 in damages.
As for Ms. Rawlings’s writing, why, you’d be hard pressed to find such side-splitting tales these days, told with such frankness. Take her diatribe about how she came to shoot one of her neighbor’s pigs:
“There were eight of the pigs. The first thing I heard every morning at daybreak was the whole outfit crashing under the fence and rushing under the floor of my bedroom for a matutinal rubbing of backs against the crosspiece. The rubbing ended, and the grunts, my room stopped shaking, and the commotion passed. I turned over for a nap. While I was napping, the happy congregation moved on to the trays of biddy-mash, the skimmed milk, and the fluffy-ruffle petunias. … One morning I sat on my veranda. The litter was peaceful, ready to lie quietly and decently in the shade. But not the red-bristled fiend. He pranced to the front yard and gave himself with abandon to my fourth planting of fluffy-ruffle petunias. I arose as one in a trance, picked up my gun, stepped to the petunia bed and shot him dead where he fed. … ‘I could have stood everything,’ he [Mr. Martin, the owner] said, ‘but then you went out and had a drunken party – and ate it.’ ”
She ends the story with a debt paid, but not in cash … .
*Many of the recipes came from the talented hands of Idella Parker, Ms. Rawlings’s cook. For more on that topic, see Ms. Parker’s book, Idella: From Reddick to Cross Creek (1999).
© 2017 C. Bertelsen