Florida Memories: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her Sweet Potato Orange Baskets

Sweet Potato Orange Basket

The name Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has loomed large in my imagination for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Central Florida, I heard many tales about this independent-minded author who moved from the urban North in the 1920s to the rural hamlet of Cross Creek, not far from my home town, Winter Park.

Rawlings lived in and wrote about her beloved adopted community for decades, and her most lauded work was based on her experiences there, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling (1938).  Yet beyond her legacy in print, Rawlings left a legend that remains strong in Central Florida lore, particularly, I think, for little girls. I, for one, was fascinated and awed by this pioneer who left northern city life behind to live in untamed Florida, thick with vegetation, rattlesnakes and moonshiners.

Wanting to know more about the person beyond the myth, I recently bought a copy of Cross Creek (1942), Rawlings’s non-fiction account of life in the rural community. Far from my original home, I also longed to immerse myself in Rawlings’s Florida, which many call the Real Florida.

My nostalgia was satisfied through Rawlings’s descriptions of the Florida landscape, which conjured up vivid images of hammock and pine and oak scrub forests dense with palmettos and underbrush. I could clearly see the old farmhouse Rawlings lived in surrounded by tranquil orange groves with scattered rays of sunlight peeking through the leaves.

It is true that certain aspects of the Rawlings legend in my mind were confirmed as I read, like the Marjorie who knew how to use her gun and occasionally made blackbird pie from birds she had shot herself (which she later found out was illegal). And the Marjorie who knew how to cook alligator to perfection and who preferred fried soft-shell cooter (turtle) to fried chicken. This was the intrepid, eccentric Rawlings of my imagination.

Yet the more pages I turned, the more I connected with Rawlings. In my adopted home of Spain, I could relate to her reflections on seeking a sense of place in a foreign environment. And through her affinity for Florida, I felt an affinity for her.

I also felt closer to Rawlings through her passion for cooking, which fully blossomed at Cross Creek. I devoured the chapter entitledOur Daily Bread,” in which she traces her path from aspiring to accomplished and intuitive cook, aided by Fannie Farmer. (Rawlings’s  mother, a gifted if reluctant cook, apparently did not consider it worthwhile to pass on culinary skills to her daughter.)

In her Cross Creek kitchen, Rawlings found inspiration in a variety of influences from her present and past, both cosmopolitan and down-home. She showed a particular fondness for local Florida ingredients and dishes, like cornpone, mayhaw jelly, alligator-tail steak and anything made with cream from her cow Dora.

Thankfully, readers at the time requested recipes for the dishes in Cross Creek, prompting Rawlings to publish a compilation, Cross Creek Cookery (1942). Through the descriptions and instructions, we get to hover over Rawlings’s shoulder in her farmhouse kitchen, admiring her bravery with the gator and peeking into casseroles simmering with love for Florida.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Sweet Potato Orange Baskets Adapted from Cross Creek Cookery

“Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories.”  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – from the introduction to Cross Creek Cookery

This recipe intrigued me, even though I was not sure what to expect from the combination of sweet potato, honey, egg, cream and bitter orange zest and rind. Before taking my first bite, I hoped for the best, and then struck gold. The soufflé-like potatoes were fragrant and enticing – bitter, sweet, savory and floral with a hint of clove. The warm colors reminded me of sunshine.

I was also drawn to this recipe because of the simple fact that oranges are a link between my original and adopted homes, Florida and Spain. In fact, the groves on Rawlings’s property were originally planted by Spaniards.

I ate my sweet potato orange basket with a green salad for a light lunch, but can easily imagine them with roast duck, as Rawlings served them. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could complete the Rawlings dinner party menu with the following dishes: “fried finger-strips of grits;…small whole white onions, braised; hot sherried grapefruit; tiny hot cornmeal muffins; a tossed salad of endive dressed with finely chopped chives, marjoram and thyme and French dressing made with tarragon vinegar,” and, “for dessert, grape-juice ice cream” (Cross Creek 249).

2 medium oranges

1 cup mashed boiled sweet potato (See note)

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon heavy cream

1 tablespoon honey, preferably orange blossom

Grated rind of 1 small orange (about ½ loosely packed teaspoon)

A dash of ground clove

¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Fresh-ground pepper

Butter

Chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

To make the “orange baskets,” halve the oranges and either juice them or scoop out the pulp (which Rawlings suggested using for a fruit cup or salad – I myself downed the fresh juice).

To make the filling, mix the mashed sweet potatoes, egg, cream, honey, orange rind, clove, salt and pepper until smooth. Fill the empty orange baskets to the rims with the sweet potato mixture and top each with a pat of butter. Bake until the surface is lightly golden, about 30 minutes. “Handles may be made with orange rinds if one wants to be very fancy,” wrote Rawlings.

NOTE: I followed Deborah Madison’s technique for boiling sweet potatoes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Scrub the potatoes and leave them whole, with the skin on. Cover them with cold water and bring to the boil. Then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender and easily pierced with a fork. I used 2 medium sweet potatoes to get a bit over 1 cup mashed.

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