Sam Burnham, Curator
Just before we left for South Georgia I found a book online titled Cracker Gothic. I was intrigued from the beginning. So imagine my surprise when Leigha held up a copy of it that she found in a local author and topic section of Once Upon a Bookseller in St. Marys. I had to have that one. And some others, but those are different stories.
Cracker Gothic by Wanda Suttle Duncan rotates mostly around the northeast Florida town of Green Cove Springs. I knew of the town beforehand but didn’t have a lot of knowledge on the place. This was an excellent opportunity to learn about a town in Florida. Real Florida.
I want to start by saying this is a good book. It’s a really good book. But the point I want to make is that this is an important book. I’d say it’s up there with Patrick Smith’s A Land Remembered when it comes to understanding Florida from an Agrarian viewpoint. (Side note: while it is subtitled “A Florida Woman’s Memoir,” it’s ok guys, you should still read it. It means it’s the experience of a woman. It’s not some Jodi Picoult novel that’s gonna cost you your man card. Read the book.)
Duncan starts the story with some family history. She tells of her forebears squeezing a living out of the Okefenokee. Her people stayed on that land as long as a living was possible. Then, like so many other Crackers, they wandered south, across the Florida line and many found a home around artesian sulfur springs near the St. Johns River. The springs are located in a little town called Green Cove Springs.
Green Cove Springs is unique. But it’s also just like every other small town in The South. It has character and characters. It also has a rich history and a heyday that is long gone. Duncan’s descriptions of all of these keep you turning pages. She weaves the town’s past and present with the personal story of the trials and tragedies that brought her back to this town decades after her escape to greener pastures elsewhere. But her return isn’t all sorrow. There are old friends as well as new. She finds herself frequenting places she wouldn’t have visited elsewhere. There are new hobbies and adventures. She rediscovers the rich flavor and aroma of sulfur water. And if you love sulfur water, you’re a genuine Cracker.
Duncan beautifully describes her return and her understanding of the Spanish idea of “Querencia,” that spot in a bullring where a bull retreats to regain his strength. La Querencia is a specific location from which one’s strength of character is drawn. It’s this sense of place that makes home much more than where you hang your hat. It is set deep in your identity. That’s what she found on her return.
Again, in many ways, Green Cove Springs is unique. There’s no other place like it. In other ways, it’s just like thousand small towns across the rural South. Taking in the stories laid out in Cracker Gothic helps us to understand the plight of small towns. Their beauty, their uniqueness, their value can be understood and appreciated only after we take the time to reconsider them. We’ve fled from them and neglected them and now it is time to go back and rediscover them, not to change or adapt them but love them for what they are.
And so this book should be read and it should show us pictures of Green Cove Springs, and also St. Marys, Kingsland, Folkston, Darien, and the list goes on. Like I said before, this is a really good book and also an important book. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves The South.
Sam Burnham, Curator
It’s finally time to take a look at the fourth book by author Jordan M. Poss. Griswoldville could fit in several categories. It’s a coming of age tale, a multi-generational drama, a war novel, and a work of historical fiction.
A book based in Georgia during the War Between the States by definition carries built-in foreshadowing for anyone familiar with the impact the war had on the state. In December of 1860 it seemed that only Alexander Stephens realized what the war would unleash on the state. But hindsight is 20/20 and a knowledgeable reader turns the pages waiting on the horrors to unfold.
I’m going to avoid spoilers because this is a book you really should read. Poss has done his homework on the topics at hand. The dates and places follow along the historic record. He paints the picture of Georgia before and during the war, including an accurate portrayal of the striated social class system.
His descriptions drop you into a country church, along a dirt road, around the fire at story time. You get the sights, the sounds, the smells. You find yourself in Georgia in the mid-19th century. It’s hard to come across a narrative that is so historically accurate while maintaining that personality, that soul. Griswoldville has both.
There’s a wonderful touch to this book as well. Poss has mentioned several times that his grandfather was part of the inspiration in this story. There’s a multi-generational narrative in the story. The theme of learning from our ancestors threads its way through the story. The relationships between grandfather, father, and grandson bring a young boy into manhood. It is akin to the process of an apprenticeship where the experienced initiate the youthful.
In this “progressive” era, it’s a risk portraying Confederates as protagonists. Poss does exactly that and does it well. I highly recommend Griswoldville. You can get you own copy here or here.
Jordan M. Poss is also the author of No Snakes in Iceland, Dark Full of Enemies, and The Last Day of Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Sam Burnham, Curator
It is impossible to discuss the current state of Southern food without this book coming into the conversation. John T. Edge has given the world a volume that pulls back the curtain and reveals the ubiquitous nature of food in Southern culture. In the South, food is far more than sustenance. Certainly the intake of nutritional requirements is necessary for survival. But in the South, food is more. It is part of the social fabric. It is a method of rallying movements to a cause. Our food is one of the most significant things that separates us from the rest of the nation.
Edge did some impressive research for this tome. He also covered a wide range of people and crisscrossed the South documenting different places and instances where, in their time, the South revolved around food.
The key word in the subtitle is "Modern." Edge is discussing how Southern food has evolved in the 20th and early 21st centuries. He doesn't get into deep details of the French, Spanish, and, most importantly, African influences that came together in 18th century New Orleans to grant the world the blessings of Creole cuisine. You have to come into this book with a little knowledge of that history and start where he starts in this book.
He starts with the Civil Rights Movement. I was fairly knowledgeable about Paschal's, the Atlanta restaurant that was so important to the work done by MLK and his team. But Edge bypassed this Atlanta landmark completely and went straight to the Montgomery bus boycotts, right to the beginning. He dropped us right in Georgia Gilmore's kitchen to see how that movement was fueled. The reader can feel the heat radiating off the stove, smell the ingredients simmering in pots, hear the clanging of spoons and pans, and here the voices of conversation as plans were made.
There are stories from segregated restaurants and lunch counters and the struggle to integrate them. We see the indignity suffered by the protesters, the violence and the way white society fought back. We see black workers in white restaurants who were overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. We see many of these workers try to strike out on their own with varying degrees of success and resistance.
Edge moves on to show Hippie communes, the impact of Southern cuisine on American fast food and fast casual restaurants, and how Southern food has become a national craze.
One of my favorite parts of the entire book was the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, who organized farming co-ops for black farmers. Her work had the potential to build agricultural communities for blacks in the South. By owning the land they were working, they had a chance at independence, a chance to make their own future out from under the foot of discrimination. It may have been a movement ahead of its time. It's just one of several stories that leave the reader frustrated about the past but that also left me with some hope for the future.
Throughout the book you see the influence race played in food. Food is like anything else in the South. You can't have a real conversation about it without at least considering race because race is a topic that touches every area of Southern life. But that isn't all bad. Through the book you see blacks get their due for their role in Southern food. From methods, to ingredients, to labor the African influence is highlighted. Without that influence there is no Southern cuisine, no Southern culture.
My one disappointment with the book is that Edge shows us the African influences and he shows us the bourgeois Old South way that white restaurants often portrayed the food in their restaurants and clubs. So we see the rich whites and the poor blacks but the one group that seems to have been overlooked was the poorer whites. I would have liked to see more about the influence that Hillbillies of Appalachia, the Crackers of South Georgia and Florida, as well as other poor whites across the South who eked out a survival on vernacular ingredients and methods. It leaves me curious about the influence of people who lived on farms on steep ridges, in snug valleys, or near marshy wetlands far from large plantations where they rarely, if ever, came in contact with slaves or slaveholders.
Had I read this book earlier, I probably would have enjoyed it more. I think the acclaim that it has gotten over the past year may have inflated my expectations. That is not to say that this is not an important work or that it is not recommended for anyone who wants to understand Southern food. It is a must read and makes an excellent introduction to the work that Edge is doing with the Southern Foodways Alliance. and my few reservations are in no way a condemnation of the book. I expected more but I received plenty.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire