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 entitled “Our 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
- 2 medium oranges
- 1 cup mashed boiled sweet potato see Notes
- 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
- 1 pinch ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
- Freshly ground pepper
- Chopped parsley for garnish optional
- Preheat oven to 350ºF.
- To make the “orange baskets,” halve the oranges crosswise and either juice them or scoop out the pulp (which Rawlings suggested using for a fruit cup or salad).
- 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.