An excerpt and recipe from Cook & Tell: Recipes and Stories From Southern Kitchens by Johnathon Barrett.
A collection of recipes with related stories that tell why the dish is special to each contributing writer, Johnathon Barrett’s Cook & Tell (out this month) shows that unique intersection of cooking and storytelling in the South. Harrison Scott Key calls it a “high-calorie romp through the kitchen of memory,” and Southerners will indeed recognize the names of writers like Mary Kay Andrews, James T. Farmer III, Michael Owens, Virginia Willis and Janis Owens.
Here, we excerpt a chapter titled “Cracker Kin” about how Barrett met Janis Owens through the Savannah Book Festival and the two developed a friendship akin to that of “cousins.” In the chapter, Owens tells her own family’s story of harvesting and sharing summer vegetables, especially Pickled Squash (recipe at the end).
with Janis Owens
When the Savannah Book Festival was created, I served on its board of directors for several years and planned the first authors’ reception. Being in the Hostess City of the South, we wanted to make the event unique from other festivals, and made all efforts to roll out the red carpet for our visiting writers and their guests. That inaugural party started with cocktails and hors’ d’oeuvres at my home, and I was thrilled to see so many of my literary idols, such as Thomas Malone and Cassandra King, milling about my house and library. Next stop was a neighbor’s house for a buffet supper, and the entire group of fifty-plus folks then strolled across the street to the sprawling Belford abode for dessert and cordials. People still talk about that night all these years later.
One of the highlights of being on the board was to be paired with an author and his or her guest for the weekend, acting as their contact, scheduling manager, and sometimes tour guide. When our slate of speakers was announced for 2009, I immediately volunteered to escort Janis Owens. I had read Janis’s wonderful novels, including My Brother Michael, The Schooling of Claybird Catts, and Myra Sims, and was a devoted fan of the first order. Besides her natural ability to spin a heartfelt yarn, what captured me about Janis was her to-the-bone pride in her North Florida “Cracker” heritage, and her love of family. About the time of the festival, she posted a photo on Facebook of her maternal grandmother, circa 1964 or so, holding a cane pole with a hand-sized perch on the line, smiling like there was no tomorrow. I fell in love with the photo, which reminded me so much of my own mom, and have since fallen in love with my newest “cousin,” Janis.
At this year’s festival, Janis was presenting her newest endeavor, a cookbook memoir called The Cracker Kitchen. I picked up a copy and became so enthralled that I read it in one sitting, getting up only to refresh my libation upon occasion. In it, Janis tells story after story about her family’s life in North Florida, and introduces you to the nuances and uniqueness of growing up as a proud Cracker. Anyone with any interest at all in Southern foodways and culture should buy a copy of this marvelous book. It is a rare gem. As the weekend of the festival progressed, Janis and I developed a wonderful bond that has since bloomed into a great friendship. We stay in constant touch and visit when we can between our busy schedules. Janis was also my mentor, helping me when I wrote my culinary memoir, Rise & Shine! It was through her coaching and encouragement that the book came to fruition and was so nicely received by food lovers across the South.
And we do refer to one another as “cousins.” There is no doubt that we are probably related. We both hail form the Deep South going back many, many generations, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of my Mama’s Nipper or Musselwhite kin had hitched up to a Johnson in a generational line that branched out and eventually produced the two of us. We also share the same temperament, one of inherent good humor, which is balanced with a slightly skeptical and wary outlook on life, particularly when it comes to people who think too much of themselves. (I mean, we’re Crackers—we question showy people’s motives.) Too, our family traditions and “ways” are so similar that if I were to stop by one of Janis’s family reunions and plop myself down next to any number of her folks, they’d just assume I was a part of the clan from up Georgia way.
Here cousin Janis gives us a story of that Cracker generosity, family togetherness, and ingenuity in the garden and the kitchen. Reading it makes me wish for a visit to Old Florida: maybe a late summer day traipsing down a dirt road, following pastures filled with palmettos and oak-draped oaks, and cooling off in a crystal-blue freshwater spring. In this picture is also a picnic basket with cold fried chicken, potato salad, and a jar of homemade
The great advantage of living in the country is that even in the years I
don’t labor over a garden of my own, I have farmer friends who pass along
the fruit of their own labors. When I lived in town, my next-door neighbor’s
son was the manager of a cantaloupe-picking crew and would bring home the
melons too ripe to ship. He’d leave them in a cardboard box on his mom’s front
porch, available to anyone who came along. If you happened to catch him in
the yard he’d holler for you to come get some melons. He didn’t have to ask
twice, as all good country girls know the ones too ripe to ship are the sweetest,
most delicious melons of all. (Incidentally, the same rule applies to men.)
So I’ve been spoiled for many years, and when I had a luncheon this
week, right around Memorial Day, for three of my oldest friends, two of them
brought fresh produce cooked in delicious dishes. Shari went out and dug up
some small red potatoes so incredible that they required nothing more than
boiling, draining, adding a little cream, butter, salt, pepper, and sprinkling of
thyme, and then stirring with a heavy spoon enough to squash them a little.
I don’t peel, don’t do anything else, and trust me, they are so incredible I
wouldn’t think of weighing them down with gravy. Some of nature’s creations
are too fabulous to cover in gravy. Not many, but there are a few.
Shari’s niece by marriage, Suzy, brought the Pickled Squash below using
vegetables she’d harvested the week before from the Holder family’s communal
garden. Suzy is actually two years younger than Shari, but both married into
the enormous Holder clan, which is one of those sprawling Cracker families
with enough children that generations get a little intermarried and confusing.
Technically, Shari’s husband is Suzy’s husband’s uncle. They are all neighbors
and live on the original Holder land northwest of tiny Newberry, Florida.
The family farms line an oak-shaded graded road for seven twisting miles,
through soul-satisfying glimpses of Old Florida. The different brothers, sisters,
cousins, and kin raise crops, livestock, and a heritage herd of Cracker horses
and cows. They have always shared and shared alike, and have lately joined forces
to create a large communal garden. Every brother contributes some-
thing: one pays for the fuel, one plows it; another provides irrigation, another
seed. I’m not sure which poor soul has to weed it; I have never thought to ask.
In any case, it is a wonderful idea, and in the Holder’s case, it’s not a trendy
return to self-sufficiency but a continuation of what they’ve been doing since
their great-great-grandfather and his brothers bought the land the century
Florida Crackers are the most generous human beings on earth, and since
they’re also the cheapest, they have a true horror of waste. The Holder Family
Garden has had a surplus of yellow squash this year—so many that they were
in danger of rotting in the field. Suzy remedied the problem with a spin on the
usual canned squash: a simple and tangy recipe for Pickled Squash that she
put up in decorative small jars, making them perfect for gift-giving. They add
a tangy side to any feast and are ready to eat immediately, though they will
keep for up to a year. —Janis Owens
Suzy’s Pickled Squash
2 POUNDS yellow squash, thinly sliced
2 MEDIUM-SIZED red bell peppers, chopped
1 ONION, thinly sliced
2 TABLESPOONS kosher salt
3 CUPS sugar
21⁄2 CUPS apple cider vinegar
2 TEASPOONS mustard seeds
2 TEASPOONS celery seeds
I N S T R U C T I O N S
1. Sprinkle the squash, bell peppers, and onions with the salt in a large bowl; toss well and let it sit for an hour.
2. Gently toss the salted vegetables again, and pack them tightly into 1 pint sterilized jars.
3. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pot and heat to boiling, stirring, till the sugar dissolves.
4. Pour the hot liquid over the packed vegetables in the jars, leaving 1⁄2 inch at the top.
5. Seal and process.
Makes 4, 1-pint jars.