In Florida, It’s Absolutely Great to Be a Cracker

Before we get to the subject of Crackers, welcome to the first Blog Hop sponsored by the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. We’re exploring some of the crazy and interesting idiosyncrasies of life in the Sunshine State. Read on and click the links below to meet more MWA members and to comment, share your favorite stories, and enter our contest to win a Kindle Paperwhite.

This Orlando postcard from the 1890s was captioned "The Cracker in Town."

This Orlando postcard from the 1890s was captioned “The Cracker in Town.”

In a lot of places, you might be slugged for calling someone a cracker, if you mean a bigoted, “redneck” Southern white. But in Florida, it’s great to be a Cracker—so much so that we capitalize it.

We laud Cracker architecture and Cracker cuisine. We have novels called Cracker westerns and the Florida Cracker Horse Association. We write obituaries in which folks say something like, “Daddy was a fourth-generation Cracker, and so proud of it.”

All this embodies a heritage that’s elusive even in parts of Florida. What is South Florida on the map is North Florida in terms of culture, so quintessential Crackerdom may be elusive, say, south of Vero Beach.

Cracker-SteClaireHistorian Dana Ste. Claire literally wrote the book on the subject: Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History (University of Florida Press, 2006). He defines a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.”

The term goes way back. In Shakespeare’s England, it meant a braggart or a big talker, and by the 1760s it was used in the Southern colonies to refer to Scotch-Irish frontiersmen.

FloridaCrackerCropped-smThe rough-and-ready qualities of these folks proved an asset on the Florida frontier, where they had to make do in a subtropical wilderness without indoor plumbing, electricity, window screens, bug spray, motorized vehicles, or even towns.

But some did have cattle, and many were attracted to the lifestyle of the cow hunter (in Florida history, it’s never “cowboy”).

To this day, many folks think Crackers got their name because of one of the techniques cow hunters used to herd cattle: “cracking” long, braided, rawhide whips in the air. “Cracker cowmen developed cattle-raising into Florida’s first industry,” Ste. Claire writes. Some did very well at it. As time passed, you could sure still be a Cracker and have money in the bank.

By the early 20th century, “Cracker” had become a regionally affectionate term, and the contributions of the folks called Crackers have been increasingly celebrated in Florida as a distinct and valuable heritage.

Cracker Kitchen-blogPart of that heritage includes good eating. As the fine Florida novelist Janis Owens writes in her cookbook, The Cracker Kitchen (Scribner, 2009), one of the finest compliments “any Cracker can get, male or female, rich or poor, is that they set a fine table.”

Recipes include Mama’s Cornbread, Green Bean Bundles, Sweet Potato Pie, Carrot and Raisin Salad — just like Owens’ mother always ordered at Morrison’s cafeteria — plus Buttermilk Pie and lots more.

The Florida Humanities Council offers a Cracker-themed music CD, in the council’s online store (www.flahum.org/Support/OnSaleNow)

“Cracker” remains a word to be used with care, however, as historian Ste. Claire notes. Abraham Lincoln once said that no matter how much you respect the common man, never call a man common to his face, and that’s probably still good advice when it comes to Florida Crackers.

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Visit our other Blog Hop contributors and win more prizes:

Victoria Allman, Gator Bites, http://www.victoriaallman.com/blog

Miriam Auerbach, Bonkers in Boca, http://www.miriamauerbach.com/bonkers-in-boca

Gregg E. Brickman, Crazy South Florida—How it got to be home, http://www.GreggEBrickman.com/blog.html

Diane Capri, Fishnado!, http://www.dianecapri.com/blog

Nancy J. Cohen, Characters Too Weird to Be True, http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

Joan Lipinsky Cochran, The Million Dollar Squatter: Crazy in the Land of Coconuts and Bagels, http://www.joanlipinskycochran.com/blog.htm?post=952677

jd daniels He Did What? http://www.live-from-jd.com

Dallas Gorhman, http://www.DallasGorham.com

Linda Gordon Hengerer Crazy Treasure on the Treasure Coast, http://footballfoodandfiction.blogspot.com/

Vicki Landis, Eavesdropping 101, http://www.victorialandis.com

Sandy Parks, Keep your eyes to the Florida skies, http://www.sandyparks.wordpress.com

Neil Plakcy, Moscow on the Intracoastal http://www.mahubooks.blogspot.com/

Johnny Ray Utilizing Google Plus Air to Facilitate Author Interviews, http://www.sirjohn.us

Joanna Campbell Slan, Honey, You’ll Never Guess What Rolled Up in the Surf http://www.joannaslan.blogspot.com

 

 

 

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To Bedford Falls, with love

Piper Rae Patterson as radio actress Sally Applewhite in Orlando Shakes's "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." (BroadwayWorld.com)

Piper Rae Patterson as radio actress Sally Applewhite in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” (BroadwayWorld.com)

I haven’t watched the 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” for years. There’s a lot to do around the holidays and it’s more than two hours long – and, besides, the part where befuddled Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) makes a big mistake and the frantic George Bailey calls him “a silly stupid old man” – that part always makes me sad.

Like Uncle Billy, I tend to lose things.

So I’m grateful to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, and its production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” for reminding me of the essence of this story – of how one hard-working man, George Bailey, gets to see how life would have been different without him in Bedford Falls.

In this 1940s “radio play,” five skilled actors portray more than 40 different characters and bring us the essence of the story and of the time, just after World War II. The actress Suzanne O’Donnell, for example, gives voice to characters ranging from Violet, the bad girl of Bedford Falls, to Bailey’s little daughter Zuzu and to his mother, Ma Bailey, played in the movie by Beulah Bondi.

Bert (Ward Bond, left) and Ernie (Frank Faylen) in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

Bert (Ward Bond, left) and Ernie (Frank Faylen) in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).

This “radio play” helped me see the story with fresh eyes and remember the characters, from mean Mr. Potter to the original Bert and Ernie, who serenade George and Mary Bailey on their wedding night with the old song “I love you truly.”

Capra-corn? My “sophisticated” younger self probably thought so. But there’s so much to this piece of true Americana and the history of our reactions to it. As the good  Wikipedia article on the movie notes, a 1947 FBI memo even suggested that Capra represented “Communist” values and the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class” by “attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

Thomas Mitchell as befuddled Uncle Billy. It's all OK in the end.

Thomas Mitchell as befuddled Uncle Billy. It’s all OK in the end.

Maybe this kind of popular movie is as close to a shared secular mythology as we Americans have – that is, a meaningful story in which audience members of varied ages know the characters and many lines and can experience meaning by watching or hearing it together.

We may know the outcome, but the story still moves us, brings its lessons home, including the thought that “no man is a failure who has friends.” And that includes Uncle Billy, too.

For more on the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, visit http://www.OrlandoShakes.org

Hitting the sauce on Thanksgiving

CranberrySauceA family friend once gave my mother a real-Florida recipe for cranberry-orange relish that involved putting the ingredients through a meat grinder. In search of a replica, I’ve found tasty relishes online, including recipes laced with oranges, with mint, with liqueurs, and some with the general suggestion that it is SO uncool to like plain old jellied cran sauce, the kind that comes slurping out of the can.

My friend Martha notes that no other food sounds quite the same as it escapes its packaging. I still like it. So, with a nod to that vintage saucy cylinder on a plate, here too is a Florida recipe from the website of a citrus co-op, floridasnatural.com, that includes apples as well as oranges.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups cranberries, sorted and washed
  • 2 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced
  • 2 oranges, peeled and sliced
  • 1/3 cup Florida’s Natural® Premium Orange Juice
  • Up to 1 cup sugar (to taste)
  • 1 tbsp. orange zest

fresh-orange-and-cranberry-relishGrind cranberries, apples, and oranges using a food processor or blender, and stir until mixed evenly. Add orange juice and orange zest. Add sugar to taste: for a tart relish, use about 1/2 cup; for a sweet relish, use about a cup. Chill and serve.

Here’s the original link: http://www.floridasnatural.com/lifestyle/recipes/main-dishes-and-sides/fresh-orange-and-cranberry-relish

Pilgrims, schmilgrims

"The First Thanksgiving, 1621," by J.L.G. Ferris. Library of Congress

“The First Thanksgiving, 1621,” by J.L.G. Ferris. Library of Congress

I fret about this every year: As our commercial culture jumps from Halloween to Christmas, where is Thanksgiving? My favorite holiday seems in danger of disappearing.

I’m talking about American folklore—pilgrims, Squanto, corn pudding, pie, family and friends, gratitude for survival and for the harvest.

But, according to the dean of Florida historians, Michael Gannon, the first North American Thanksgiving actually took place in Florida, and that’s even more forgotten.

Pilgrims, schmilgrims. Our shores were home to a thanksgiving celebration in 1565, decades before the doings at Plymouth Colony in 1621.

The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving

Prof. Michael Gannon. Courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Prof. Michael Gannon. Courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Gannon, now distinguished service professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida, wrote about Florida’s first thanksgiving in 1965, in his book “The Cross in the Sand.” He described the 1565 feast as “the first community act of religion and Thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in the land.”

Twenty years later, the good professor would be jokingly dubbed “the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

A reporter called Gannon in search of a fresh angle for a holiday article, and the professor told him about Thanksgiving, Florida-style—how on Sept. 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles had joined in the celebration of a thanksgiving Mass in the St. Augustine area, followed by a meal at which the explorer’s men supped with local Indians.

On the menu: Garbanzos and seafood

Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Library of Congress

Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Library of Congress

The Spaniards probably served their shipboard staples: salt pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread (or hardtack) and red wine. The natives would have supplied the good eating: seafood from our coastal waters, Gannon said.

After the interview and an Associated Press story, Gannon found himself besieged by talk-show hosts. Reaction was strongest in Massachusetts.

“You’ve caused a firestorm up here,” one interviewer told him, reporting that Plymouth’s town leaders were meeting about the Florida insurgency.

Now, things have calmed down. When reporters asked a few years ago about other claims to the first Thanksgiving (Texans and Virginians have theirs, too), officials at Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., adopted a conciliatory tone. When it comes to original feasts of “American” thanksgiving, they also noted, the best claims belong to Native Americans.

Giving thanks at St. Augustine, 1565

Giving thanks at St. Augustine, 1565

By the way, Michael Gannon’s book “Florida: A Short History” is an indispensable introduction to the state’s past, as is his “History of Florida in 40 Minutes” (University Press of Florida, 2007). For a great article about Gannon, see Jeff Klinkenberg’s profile at TampaBay.com, http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/the-remarkable-michael-gannon-his-history-is-floridas-history/1098373

All-American Bird

Franklin-Benjamin-LOC-headIf Ben Franklin had had his way, the turkey might be more than the centerpiece of America’s Thanksgiving menu – it might be our national bird as well.

Franklin thought the bald eagle was for the birds. At least that’s what he told his daughter Sarah.

“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” Franklin wrote in a humorous letter in 1784. “He is a bird of bad moral character.”

Eagles were too lazy to fish for themselves.  They just loitered about on some dead tree until some hawk made a catch. “When that diligent bird has at length taken a fish . . . the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him,” Franklin wrote.

turkeyIn contrast, Franklin found the turkey “a much more respectable bird” and “a true original native of America.”

UnderwaterTurkey

Photo courtesy of the Florida State Archives, FloridaMemory.com

Thanks to historian Dana Ste.Claire of St. Augustine for telling me about Franklin’s view of turkeys several years ago.

Like Florida sometimes, turkeys don’t get much respect.

In a typical 1950s ad for a Florida attraction, Rainbow Springs, the noble bird even had to pose being carved underwater.

That’s a fine way to treat such a respectable piece of poultry, Franklin might say.