Friday, February 15, 2008

COME WITH ME ON A JOURNEY


This is what they called a "Cracker House" in Florida. Basically a Florida Cracker was a Florida Cowboy and is still used by some Floridians to indicate that their family has lived there for many generations. For such people it is a source of pride to be descended from "frontier people who did not just live but flourished in a time before air conditioning, mosquito repellent, and screens.We lived close to this empty house and I was always drawn to it. To get to the house you have a winding trail that goes through scrub and than into a beautiful Florida Hammock. The gray moss hung thick in some of the trees and almost made you feel like you were “coming home”. The old trees had branches that had to fight for light and so they were a beautiful maze as you look through them into the sky and as you rounded a bend you saw this most precious house. I know it has many a story to tell. There is a hand pump at the one side and I am sure for many years that was the only source for water. The screened porch tells you that many a night someone sat and rocked and as darkness came and the night sounds began. I think these folks really had a need to be in harmony with nature and their environment. In fact I believe their lives depended on it. There were several nights we went there just to feel nature as the sun set and we sat and listened and were captivated by our surroundings. You would hear the night critters begin to move about, the eerie sound of a owl, the flapping of wings as birds settled down for the night in the tall trees above you and we even saw bats as they glided above us. The sounds of a Piney-wood rooter hunting for food was a sure bet. (That is simply a wild boar). You sat and did not talk because you did not want the sound of a human to drive away the enchantment of the place. I always had a dread that I would have to leave and yes go to a newer and more modern place but still I wanted to stay.

There was a fire pit with old hewn logs as seats and I wondered just what was cooked over that open fire. Having lived in South Florida in a rural area and knowing many folks there that called themselves Florida Crackers I often was told stories of how they lived and ate. I am sure “hoecakes” were cooked in an old black cast iron skillet at this place. A hoecake is a simple cake made of cornmeal, salt and water and has to be cooked in a black fry pan most likely in fat that is left over from frying fatback. I guess I need to explain that fatback is off the back of a hog and is cut in squares and than sliced and fried until it becomes crunchy. They also in the old days made lard by boiling fatback and than straining it through fine clothe. Fatback is still used today and also is great to season beans and vegetables. They probably cooked many a deer and boar in the fire pit too. I am sure of this because they lived off the land. I would sit there by that pit and almost smell the food as it cooked and sizzled. Better yet I could almost taste it!

I guess this might be the time to tell you of a precious older man we all loved that was a Florida Cracker and had the cracker cattle. We would go to his old home and spend a weekend. The men would get up before dawn to go squirrel hunting and the girls and I would smell the strong coffee as it bubbled on the stove. We knew we needed to be up and soon begin to get ready to serve a big breakfast for the men when they returned in an hour or so. I would mix up the batter for the hoecakes and cut the fatback and have it ready to fry. I knew since our friend was a bachelor I would make his day by making some homemade biscuits and have them ready for him as he came in the door. He would take cane syrup and allow it to soak in his biscuits….I simply never could stand the taste or cane syrup. I much preferred the sweet orange blossom honey he collected from his bees. I knew they would bring back fresh squirrels and they would be dressed and than I would have to cook them. I ate many but never really acquired the taste for them. To me they looked awful in the frying pan. But that would be lunch…I knew I had to soak them in buttermilk for at least an hour to get out the wild taste and tenderize them a bit. He liked them to be coated with flour and salt and pepper and than fried until light brown .I would than add a chopped onion to the skillet and brown it, add water, milk and flour and bring it to a boil and add the fried squirrel and allow it to simmer about 15 minutes to ½ hour. So when I say these folks lived off the land I simply mean it. Fish, boar, doves, venison, gator and turtle were everyday food for them. I have eaten all I mentioned and lived to tell the story.

Cracker life was a simple life but a hard one for many. Some worked sawmills that were way back in the “glades” or lived on the horse from daybreak till sun down. Often the kids wore clothes made from “croker sacks” (burlap gunny sacks) and flour sack fabric. But they lived in nature, were ruled by nature and respected nature. They were close families that loved each other and they knew nothing but hard working days and nights but at least they did it together.

And so as I would have to get up and leave this green and vacant “cracker house” I would feel like I was a better person to have been there and remembered all the stories I had been told. As our friend used to say….”I live off the land, I give back to the land and I worship God who made the land for me to tend. That my friend is “good clean country living” and when I go to bed at night bone tired I am at peace.”

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