Before the Locavores

by:

in: People

While it may be trendy to be a locavore, eating locally has been a way of life in Central Florida for generations. Though times have changed since the 1800s, when people started gathering there to live in isolation and subsist close to the land, some of their descendants hold onto the traditions they forged. While the name given to this group — “Crackers” — has come to be used pejoratively, many people living this life wear the name — and celebrate their heritage — with pride.

Two Florida-born filmmakers, Julie Kahn and Hayley Downs, investigate Cracker culture in “Swamp Cabbage: A Hot and Sweaty Documentary” to be released late next year. They answered some questions about the Crackers and their documentary.

Who, exactly, are the Florida Crackers?

Julie: Some say that if you are born in Florida, you are a Florida Cracker, however we feel that Crackers are not simply native Floridians. I was born in Miami, but I don’t claim the title Cracker. Historically, Crackers lived a predominantly self-sufficient life in rural areas, growing their own vegetables, hunting or raising their own meat and building their own houses.

Hayley: Today the definition includes multigenerational Floridians who try to practice the old ways even as they assimilate into more modern ways of life. I grew up in a middle-class subdivision, but my family home was tricked out with a vegetable garden, a locker for storing game, an outdoor sink for cleaning fish and a junkyard refrigerator repurposed into a smoker. My sister and I were always encouraged to be proud that we were Florida Crackers.

As more people move to Florida, though, land prices are skyrocketing, and prohibitive inheritance taxes are destroying family-owned agricultural businesses. Many Crackers are fleeing to wilderness areas in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia in an effort to reclaim their way of life.

How did you become interested in this culture and decide to document it?

Hayley: “Swamp Cabbage” began in May 1999 when we decided to document my father’s wild game feast in DeLand, Fla. As we began to trace the sources of the game to the wild boar, alligator and rattlesnake hunters, we discovered a nearly secret community intimately connected with the disappearing primordial Florida landscape.

Julie: As second-generation Floridians, interested in Slow Food and dismayed by the paving of Florida, we branched out from there when we realized the potential of the documentary not only to amplify the voice of an under-explored and often-stereotyped region, but also to address broader contemporary issues of conservation and community.

Food seems to bind this culture. Have you come out of the project with any new favorite dishes?

Julie: We are great believers in trying all things strange and new. While it was certainly interesting to taste gator and rattlesnake, the really delicious revelations for me were swamp cabbage, soft-shell turtle stew, quail in wine sauce, smoked mullet dip, and sour orange pie.

Hayley: I grew up eating and loving a fusion of Florida Cracker, from my father’s side, and down-home Alabama from my mother’s side. But I really enjoyed the Bay Area Wild Game Feast [held to raise funds for the documentary] where I had my first taste of Cracker “California”: wild duck stew, salmon “candy” and grilled Mendocino wild boar.

What is swamp cabbage?

Julie: Swamp cabbage is perhaps the most typical Cracker dish. It’s a stew made from hearts of Sabal palm, Florida’s state tree. Its preparation requires killing the tree, and thus the very survival of the dish depends upon careful stewardship of the land. It is considered a staple food of the Crackers.

Other Cracker delicacies include squirrel or chicken pilau, pronounced pur-loo, it’s a one-dish meal of meat and rice cooked together; soft-shell turtle, or “cooter,” which is legal to hunt in season; scrub chicken, also known as gopher tortoise, which are now illegal to hunt; mullet, quail, wild boar and sour orange pie.

Hayley: Depending on where in Florida they hail from, a Cracker’s menu might also include salt or freshwater fish — redfish, snook, mullet, catfish, and bass as well as crab, and tropical fruit like guava, avocado, mango, sour oranges. South Florida Crackers make “old sour,” distilled key lime with salt and hot pepper that’s used as a condiment for fish and hushpuppies.

To learn more

The filmmakers of "Swamp Cabbage" suggest the following reading on Florida Crackers and conservation:
  • Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "Cross Creek Cookery"
  • Janis Owens' "The Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, Down Home Family Stories and Cuisine"
  • Bill Belleville's "Losing It All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape"
  • Marjorie Stoneman Douglass' "River of Grass"
  • Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: "The Yearling, Cross Creek, Patrick Smith: A Land Remembered"
  • Dana Ste. Claire's "Cracker"
  • Grady MacWhiney's "In Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South"
  • Carlton Ward Jr.'s "Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier"
  • John Kral's "Cracker: Florida’s Enduring Cowboys"
  • Carl Hiaasen's "Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World"
  • Loren G. "Totch" Brown's "Totch: A Life in the Everglades"
  • Glen Simmons' "Gladesman: Gator Hunters, Moonshiners, and Skiffers"
  • Michael Grunwald's "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise"
  • Janisse Ray's "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood"

What did you learn while working on this documentary?

Julie: I learned so much — about food, wildlife, hunting, conservation, nature, culture, loneliness and connectedness. I would have to say the two greatest lessons were 1) how to love Florida, which I hated as a child, and 2) Florida Crackers came waaaaaay before Alice Waters.

Growing up in Miami, I could never quite get past the uncomfortable heat, humidity, mosquitoes and vermin. Hanging out with Crackers taught me to appreciate the breathtaking and exotic beauty of Florida’s primordial wilderness.

The Crackers also “schooled” me on the food movement. I have always been obsessed with food, mostly as a voracious eater and lay chef, but I also fancied myself a bit of a food activist. Yet it wasn’t until I moved to a derelict orange grove in rural Florida to document Cracker food traditions that I began to really understand the connection between food, community, place and conservation.

My experiences on hunts, foraging trips, ranches and mango groves completely transformed my ideas about the food and the meaning of the “local, sustainable, organic” refrain. Through an unlikely community in an overlooked corner of the world, I have learned a deep respect not only for Florida, but also for disappearing local knowledge, wilderness and wild food.

Hayley: Like many people, I took the world I was brought up in entirely for granted. I started to investigate and ultimately value my cultural identity when my father became terminally ill. Over the course of this project, it’s been gratifying to see how fascinated people are with real Florida and how “game” the guests at our wild game feast fundraisers have been to try Cracker delicacies. A lifelong vegetarian going back for a third plate of fried alligator comes to mind. I’ve realized that “Swamp Cabbage” provides folks with an opportunity to have another look at their own home places and eccentric stories and that is very exciting.

One last question: How did they get the name ‘Crackers’?

Julie: The original Crackers were Florida squatters, typically of Scotch Irish descent, who were, we’ve come to believe, nicknamed for the whips they cracked as a way to communicate across the silence of the Florida swamp and to drive wild cattle through the wilderness.


Christy Hobart is a food and shelter writer in Los Angeles.

“Swamp Cabbage: a Dark and Sweaty Documentary” is expected to be out in late 2011. Julie and Hayley can be reached by email at swampcabbagemovie@gmail.com for “Swamp Cabbage” news and dates of upcoming fundraiser feasts.

Photo: Harvesting sabal palm. Credit: Julie Kahn

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