T. PETERSBURG — I felt darn silly serving iced tea from a big supermarket jug to a real, honest-to-goodness Southern cook. After all, isn't iced tea one of the measures of kitchen prowess south of the Mason-Dixon line?'
There was no need to worry. Because my guest, while being a confident cook, also possesses other hallmark Southern characteristics: charm and manners. She drank the tea as if her own mama made it.
I invited Janis Owens, novelist turned cookbook author, to my home last week to make a few recipes from The Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, Down-Home Family Stories and Cuisine (Scribner, 2009). We spent a few hours talking, less time cooking, which is probably how things go in her own kitchen. On paper and in person, Owens is a storyteller. She comes by it honestly, growing up the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher turned insurance salesman.
Owens, 48, is a native Floridian, born in Marianna, in the Panhandle. She lives in Newberry now, south of Gainesville, on 20 acres crowded with old oaks. The cookbook started as memoir but morphed into a more traditional cookbook. The memoir was a more familiar format to the writer of novels (My Brother Michael; Myra Sims; and The Schooling of Claybird Catts); still, she is happy with the result.
Her friend, author Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides, The Great Santini), wrote the introduction to Cracker Kitchen.
"She tells of a hidden, mysterious Florida that few people know about, and in so doing has written the best cookbook based in central Florida since Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Cross Creek Cookery," he writes.
Pretty good praise from a man who knows the South.
The word "Cracker" in the title of Owens' book stirs emotions everywhere she goes. Some people she meets claim the label with pride; others find it pejorative and equate it with Southern racism. In fact, the press material from Scribner is careful to say that it is Owens who calls herself a Cracker, not the publicity department.
Owens understands both sides and knows there are many definitions of the word. She translates it as thrifty country-folk who value family, religion and tradition, including a vast menu of homemade specialties.
"Religion is our religion, but food is close," she says.
Crackers, she explains, are a subset of Southerners. And though the race issues are real, she says, it's interesting that so much of Cracker cuisine mirrors Southern black food traditions.
"The same forces that shaped Cracker cooking — poverty and ingenuity not least — shaped soul food. Since we all started out in the South, we stewed, fried and roasted the same little animals in the same little herbs," Owens writes.
The same little animals. She's talking about squirrel, turtle, frogs, possum, rattlesnake and the mother of all road kill, armadillo. There are recipes for all these critters in the book, but in hindsight, Owens says, she might have left that out.
"Those are getting a lot of attention" in the media, she says, worrying that might leave the wrong impression. This is not a gimmicky cookbook, but rather one that is useful for beginners and familiar to experienced Southern cooks.
Now, we cook
I asked Owens to show me how to make shrimp and grits, mostly because this Southern classic is my latest obsession. There is not an exact recipe in the book for it, but she improvised, much as she does at home. (I watched carefully and wrote the recipe to share, adding her suggestion for sherry.)
Though I think of shrimp and grits as a South Carolina specialty, Owens says it may have gotten its start in Florida; after all, we do boast some mighty fine wild gulf shrimp. That's sure to open a can of worms, but so be it.
I took away three lessons from our session: Salt the boiling water before pouring the grits ("Afterward, it's too late"), turn the heat off just before the shrimp are completely pink ("They will cook the rest of the way while sitting and not get tough") and use more butter than you think you should. Really, it's what adds the richness.
(We warmed up the leftovers for dinner, and they were just as good.)
Owens suggested making Broccoli and Raisin Salad, which is one of those dishes that smacks of simple. Make it the night before you want to serve it and the flavors will meld even more. The salad tastes a bit like the sweet broccoli melange served at Sweet Tomatoes. Owens favors the salad for potlucks and tailgate parties and pairs it with barbecue, too.
She broke the broccoli into florets, measured out raisins and Spanish peanuts and chopped onion. The remaining onion pieces went into a resealable plastic bag. "Like all good Crackers, you save everything," she says. Talking and cooking is something she does at home, but she's had to perfect it as she takes her show on the road for demonstrations and book signings.
I ate the last few spoonfuls of salad as a late-night snack, after I baked Sweet Potato Cream Pie, Owens' favorite recipe in the book. It's akin to a sweet potato cheesecake in a graham cracker crust. Another simple recipe that comes together from mostly pantry items. Serve it once, and you'll be making it a million times.
After my first hands-on lesson in Southern cooking, I might be ready to tackle that tea. As Owens ends her book, Amen.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.