Making crab gumbo isn’t as easy as it used to be

Crabbing Florida State Archives

Years ago crabs were so plentiful in the Pensacola area that as a kid, author Charlie Davis and his brothers caught blue crabs in Bayou Texar in East Pensacola Heights by the dozens. They then sold the live crabs for 30 cents and 50 cents a dozen. I also heard of a man filling a galvanized wash tub with crabs when a Crab Jubilee occurred on Pensacola Beach. Whether the decline is caused by the oil spill, a virus or over-crabbing, blue crabs are no longer plentiful in the Florida Panhandle. PHOTO CREDIT: FLORIDA STATE ARCHIVES.

I love estate sales. They offer a wealth of writing inspiration. I’ve got an estate sale mystery in the works, but lately I’ve been buying small cookbooks that speak to my soul – and to my blog.

When I shop an estate sale, I make a quick reconnaissance spin through the entire house, and usually end up staring at a bookshelf, most often in the kitchen.  I’m drawn to club, school and church cookbooks  — you remember, the ones with the spiral black plastic bindings that come unwound.  I’ve learned to avoid cardboard boxes filled with clipped recipes. The silverfish make me draw back my hand pretty quick.

My best find recently is The Art of Catching & Cooking Crabs by Lynette L. WaltherLynette Walther Cookbook published in 1983. Yes, a book with a black plastic binding devoted to crabs somehow made its way from a bookstore in Delaware to a kitchen in the Florida Panhandle.  And every single recipe includes crab – sautéed, deviled, stuffed, boiled, steamed, fried. Or in appetizers, salads, sandwiches, bisques, crepes, soups or gumbos.  And, yes, even a crab mold made with Lemon Jell-O.

The first part of the book is a guide to building your own crab traps (she calls them crab pots, but in the South we call ‘em traps). Photographs show how to clean and cook a hard shell crab. She even includes a photo of a “crab knife,” and sure enough, I found one on Amazon. No need to seek out a beachside knifemaker.

My biggest trouble is finding the crabs. Where I live was first known as Town Point, and it was rich in crabs, even noted for its Town Point Crab Gumbo.  Several of my neighbors “crab,” but they say it’s not like it used to be. In fact, there used to be Crab Jubilees when the crabs were so thick they made their way on shore by the droves.  I’m still waiting to see this phenomenon or even catch a single crab in Florida. We save cookbooks by the case, but have yet to realize we need to save the crabs. Nowadays they are rare – my bold assumption is based on escalating crab prices at the seafood market and the absence of jubilees.

That’s why making one of Lynette’s gumbos might take me a while. I need to find a supplier for large, live crabs – not lump crab meat in a plastic container.  I’m torn, though, whether to make one of the gumbos or a pot of her mouth-watering, glorious, creamy rich She Crab Soup.

Recipes

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Hurricane Gumbo: Music, Poetry, Legend or Recipe?

 

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A Cookbook From The Woman’s Club of Pensacola (center) features an enigmatic-titled gumbo recipe. I found the vintage cookbook at an estate sale, along with a Christmas mailing from Paul Prudhomme (top left) and a copy of Stove Pilot: Favorite Recipes from Maxwell Air Force Base. I’ve opened the copy of Stove Pilot to display the beautiful handwritten recipes and art in this “club” cookbook.

Why Margaret Mang named her gumbo “Hurricane Gumbo” I’ll never know for sure.  But I have a good guess. Her 1982 recipe appears in A Cookbook  from The Woman’s Club of Pensacola that I picked up at an estate sale over the weekend.  I never knew Margaret and can’t call.  She died seven years ago in Gulf Breeze, where I live.

HGThe name of her original recipe fascinates me.  I’ve never seen a gumbo recipe like it. I searched for others with the same name and identical ingredients, to no avail.  The research was entertaining, though. I listened to the Chicago-based eight- piece zydeco band Hurricane Gumbo. (They play for money, not gumbo — that’s a  Jimmy Buffett joke).  I looked inside a poetry collection titled Hurricane Gumbo (not my cup of soup) that features a gumbo recipe on the back cover (not as intriguing as Margaret’s).  And  I read an urban legend about folks waiting-out a storm by making gumbo and drinking hurricanes, hence Hurricane Gumbo. None could compare with Margaret’s recipe.

Her concoction could easily be a storm-brewing version of “Gotta Go Soup” or “Mustgo,” as in everything must go. You know, cook it before it wastes. From June to November, those of us living along the Coast know we’ll lose power if a hurricane’s heading our way. So we clean out the refrigerator, down to the very last ingredient, and start cooking. My biggest clue for the recipe’s name is Margaret’s last ingredient, though she lists it as optional. I’ve never seen that before!Hurricane G recipe.jpegNo doubt buying all these ingredients at once could cost a fortune, so the next time I accumulate most of them, hurricane or not, I’m making Margaret Mang’s Hurricane Gumbo – and drinking the rest of the wine, claret or not. And then I’ll invite plenty of people over because this makes enough gumbo for the neighborhood.

 

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Did you hear the one about the Jello-O ?

White Linen Orange

In a lively and unapologetically Southern talk at the Magnolias and White Linen gala luncheon,  James Farmer III said so many memorable one-liners that I pulled out my pocket notebook and started writing. He was talking my language. Family stories.  Southern food.  Old timey recipes.

“In a small town, you know someone in your family has died when the Jell-O salad shows up.”  I laughed because I had just created a real gelatine (not Jell-O) dessert for my grandkids like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings served her guests in Cross Creek.

The posh event was my introduction to Farmer, a Southern cook well known to Georgians,

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The Magnolias & White Linen program featured a version of this photo of James Farmer III.

Floridians and even New Yorkers. The author- gardener- interior designer-cook tells great Southern-style stories, sounds like me, and writes beautiful books. Plus, his downhome humor delivered in a melodious Southern accent keeps you listening and laughing. He doesn’t apologize for that accent either, as he says, “ ’cause that’s the way I really talk.”

Like James Farmer, our family tells Jell-O stories, too. The funniest one is from our Texas friends who graphically describe a main course they were served in Arkansas – a congealed Jell-O lime casserole made with chopped green pepper, boiled eggs and corned beef hash. It took plenty of courage for them to swallow the cold green concoction while feigning approval to the hostess. And then there’s the difficult decision to add bananas that might turn black or sticking with the tried and true Fruit Cocktail.

But Marjorie’s “Orange Jelly” dessert in Cross Creek Cookery is perfection. Her gelatine (she prefers the British spelling with the “e” on the end) calls for gelatine, sugar, water, orange and lemon juice.  I try to make authentic Marjorie recreations, so I used satsumas an Optimist club member picked and brought to the Optimist Christmas tree lot. What the tree crew didn’t eat, I tucked away in my refrigerator. Two months later I squeezed them in my tribute to Marjorie’s 75th Anniversary of Cross Creek and its companion recipe book.  

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Cross Creek Cookery recipe for Orange “Jelly” is top-rated by grandkids.

My grandkids had never tasted real gelatine, and it had been decades since I’d actually torn open an envelope of Knox.  Sadly, the recipe only produced four small custard cups. Since I don’t have an authentic Dora the Cow grazing in the backyard, I used Reddi-Wip for topping.  Ten-year-old Max mixed his all up and said it tastes like a Dreamscicle – his favorite flavor. Dreamscicle Jelly and Reddi-Wip is fodder for a great family story.

I think James Farmer would approve – and sigh a breath of relief that nobody died. 

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Florida Pecans: for deadly delicious Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings pie and — would you believe — gumbo?

 

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I’m learning that often the trick to cooking 75-year old-recipes is finding the ingredients. It’s been a while since I shopped for real cane syrup. My favorite is the kind packaged in a golden colored tin can sold a produce stands off the beaten path. I was lucky to find this brand at Winn Dixie.

In the movie Cross Creek, there’s a shot of a marvelous wedge of pecan pie just oozing with flavor. Not a word is said, the photo says it all — in about a thousand calories. And that picture personifies why cooking my way through Cross Creek Cookery is going to be fattening.

Even Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings cut calories from some recipes professing a tendency towards plumpness.  She kept a scale nearby, and it wasn’t for food.  In fact, she had two human scales — one in each bath. (I bet she hid them when she invited the neighbors over to tour her bathroom, the first indoor one in Cross Creek.)

The movie inspired my first Cross Creek Cookery cooking adventure – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie. I used a cup and half of pecans from a tree just around the corner. Neighbor John Adams planted it in his front yard a few years ago and shares his bounty with the neighbors — and a few persistent squirrels.  I don’t know which of the 500 varieties his pecans are, but they look like Stuarts, which grow well here in the Florida Panhandle as well as Northern Florida. Rawlings would probably have used the same type.img_9003

The pie lives up to its name – deadly, delicious and sweet, sweet, sweet. I followed Marjorie’s recipe to a T, but was wise enough to begin with something I had cooked before, even though my own recipe differs a little. If I had started with Ox-tail Pilau or Minorcan Gopher Stew, I would have been lost.

There’s a steep learning curve when it comes to cooking 75-year-old recipes. For example —

  1. Cross Creek Cookery is not for beginners – unless they have beginner’s luck. I knew better
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    A volunteer in period dress works in the chicken coop at the Marjorie Rawlings Historic Site in Florida. No doubt Marjorie would have gathered warm eggs fresh from the roost when making Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie.

    than to pour beaten eggs into a hot mixture, even a little at a time. But I trusted Marjorie. Bad choice. I eventually strained my gooey mess, started over and used a technique I had learned from my mother to add a few hot drops to the eggs first to warm them up. In her defense, Marjorie probably used warm eggs right out of the hen house.

  2. Wal-Mart doesn’t have everything. If you’re looking for cane syrup or other ingredients unique to a region, try a smaller store. I eventually found Steen’s Cane Syrup at Winn Dixie, a Southern chain (as the name implies). Wal-Mart only carries “cane flavored syrup.”
  3. Marjorie’s stove is different from mine. The recipe calls for a moderate oven. I had to google “moderate oven” and set it to 350 degrees.
  4. Her vocabulary is that of a writer. She describes her pecan pie as a confection, but I didn’t really know what she meant from the connotation in the text. I had to look that one up, too, and learned a confection is a very sweet food. No doubt about that when I tasted the pie.

Since I love pecans, I look forward to trying some other Cross Creek Cookery pecan recipes: Pecan Patties, Pecan Cream Torte, and Pecan Soufflé.  I’m not too sure about the Jellied Pecans with Grapefruit,   but I’ve got everything I need – more pecans from John and grapefruit from another neighbor.

There’s not a pecan gumbo recipe in Cross Creek Cookery, but here’s one that looks interesting enough to try when our vegetarian son comes for a visit. Click below to view vegetarian gumbo using protein from pecans.

PECAN GUMBO RECIPE

 

 

 

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Small towns focus on food celebrations for Mardi Gras

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Mardi Gras dinner at a local Catholic church proved the perfect way to start Mardi Gras Week. I toted my petite Blue Crab Boil purse and wore my beads. The gumbo was so good, I’d like to order a gallon.

I ushered in Mardi Gras Week with red beans and rice, jambalaya, King Cake and a big bowl of gumbo at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Gulf Breeze, Florida. For only $10, I enjoyed a plate filled with delicious food and a bowl of some of the best gumbo I’ve ever eaten.  I wore my Mardi Gras beads and carried my gumbo purse, just to get into the spirit.

The volunteer gumbo cook, Bernice Bellard, a transplant from Lafayette, Louisiana, was ladling out her chicken and sausage gumbo at the end on the buffet line.  She wore a quirky apron and a big smile, even though she’d been cooking all day in the church kitchen. She insisted on cooking there to ensure her special Cajun gumbo would be served hot and to her satisfaction.  Locals know her as Angie Batten’s mom.  Bernice’s gumbo reminded me of my grandmother’s – the chicken was perfectly moist, not stringy and the taste sublime.

Three miles across the bay from Gulf Breeze, sits Pensacola which boasts a much longer history of Mardi Gras, tracing back to 1874 when the Knights of Priscus organized. Compared to neighboring Mobile, which held its first Mardi Gras celebration in 1703, Pensacola is a latecomer to the party. New Orleans’ first krewe, the mystic Krewe of Comus,  observed Mardi Gras with a parade in 1875, one year after organizing.  Now even smaller towns along the coast like Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Fairhope, Alabama, and Pensacola Beach host parades. But very small towns like Gulf Breeze focus on the food.

So it’s beads, parades and food for the next few days for me.  On the Monday before Mardi Gras

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Photo from Do Pensacola.com

(Lundi Gras),  there’s free red beans and rice on Pensacola Beach, compliments of the Krewe of Wrecks.  I’ll miss it, though, because I’ll be at an art event in nearby Crestview—but at least it has a Mardi Gras theme.

On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras,  we’ll be dining at St. Francis Assisi Episcopal Church for another New Orleans’ spread.  I’m beginning to long for old-fashioned Shrove Tuesday celebrations like the ones at Christ Episcopal Church in Tyler, Texas, where we celebrated with a big pancake dinner . . . no andouille, Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce. . . just plain ol’ pancakes with syrup.

Tasty homemade pancakes with strawberries,blueberries and maple

After a week of Cajun, Creole and Louisiana fare, simple Shrove Tuesday pancakes, Texas style, are pretty tempting.

 

 

 

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Cooking Bear Gumbo? No, not even for a 75th Anniversary

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This black bear strolled across our front yard and then ambled down the street in October 2013. The flowers make it look like spring, but that’s fall in the Florida Panhandle. We suspect bears live in the wetlands across the street, the green area in the background of this photo.

We live at the junction of two lonely streets, directly across from a densely wooded wetland.  At night, with no moon, it’s pitch dark except for the golden glow from two mist-shrouded street lamps casting eerie shadows.

The other evening, right about dusk, as my husband pulled into the driveway, the headlights caught a glimpse of a man-sized shadow crossing between the garage door and his truck. Suspecting an intruder, he took a slow cruise around the block, probably outlining some Marine Corps tactic or wondering if the target pistol is in the truck.

As he drove slowly in front of our house, big ol’ mama black bear emerged from our driveway and lumbered into the wetlands – heading home after an early evening of garbage can looting. Last week, she and two cubs climbed the neighbor’s fence and played with the water hose, wrapping it around the trunk of a tall pine. I suspect they took a dip in the neighbor’s pool, too, to clean up after upending the other neighbor’s garbage cans.

One female bear came too close to a residential neighborhood several miles from my house and swatted at a man and his dog. Sadly, she came too close to man and was captured and euthanized  leaving three cubs in the care of animal rescue professionals.  I don’t think it was the same bear that lives in the wetlands near my house because there are plenty of black bears around here. In fact, Florida black bears are large enough in number to allow a legal (thankfully short) bear-hunting season.  

Seventy-five years ago, when Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote Cross Creek Cookery bears were

becoming scarce, and she saw no reason for destroying the remaining ones for food. She admits in her cookbook, however, that she thoroughly enjoyed bear meat. She even describes the texture and tastes of different bear meats, ranging from mating male to nursing female to young male (a yearling!).  And, she includes recipes for Pot Roast of Bear and Bear Steak.

Like Marjorie, I won’t be cooking bear, but I’ll celebrate the 75th anniversary of her cookbook, originally published in 1942, by cooking my way through her Florida flavors.  As a Florida Panhandle resident I have access to many of her exotic ingredients – loquat, kumquat, alligator pears (avocados), pecans, grapefruit, lemons and oranges, all abundant in my neighborhood. And I don’t have to enter the wetlands to pick them – one neighbor piles a wheelbarrow filled with grapefruit and rolls it out to the street for all to enjoy her backyard bounty.

But for you die-hard gumbo fans, here’s a Bear Gumbo Recipe straight from the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Department.  I won’t be cooking New Jersey Bear Gumbo either – not even for a 75th Anniversary !

bear-gumbo-recipe

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Celebrating 75 years of Cross Creek Cookery, Florida style

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Gulf Breeze, Florida, and Cross Creek, Florida, cater to a different crowd.

I wanted to know more about the history of small Florida towns in the 1930s, so my friend Sally, who grew up around here, took me to a Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society meeting.  I hoped the presentation on the “founding fathers” would give me a better insight into Majorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek.  After all, two Florida towns only 375 miles apart surely share some history.

Two weeks earlier I had visited Cross Creek, about 20 miles southeast of Gainesville. Now a Florida Historic Site, that’s where Rawlings lived and wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Yearling, among others.

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Majorie Kinnan Rawlings typed away on her screened-in front porch amidst the fragrance of orange blossoms.

There I fell in love with her writing lifestyle – typing stories on the screened front porch of her clapboard house, surrounded by an orange grove. Maybe I could channel some of those vibes on my back porch.

Inspired, I decided to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Rawlings’ books, Cross Creek and Cross Creek Cookery, with a reading-cooking adventure for my blog. There won’t be as many gumbo recipes as last

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Remnants of the orange grove still stand at Rawlings’ home at Cross Creek, now a Florida historic site.

year’s 52 American Writers, but I hope to cook up some authentic Florida dishes following her cookbook recipes.

I didn’t discover much in common between Gulf Breeze and Cross Creek, probably because we didn’t get a bridge to the mainland until 1931. By that time the produce industry in Cross Creek was thriving with well-established citrus groves and farms. Cross Creek boasted vast orchards while our first families were planting single trees — fig, satsuma, grapefruit,  avocado, pecan —  in front and back yards.  Our wildlife is similar too– gopher turtles, bear, raccoon, fish, alligator.  

But my town, once inhabited by Native Americans and lumbermen, is basically a cottage resort village – a summer vacation spot ever since that first bridge enabled city folks to live at the beach during the summer. We sold sea shells. Cross Creek sold oranges. They welcomed Cross Creek the movie, and the likes of Robert Frost and Margaret Mitchell. We hosted Jaws 2 and UFO sightings.

While the evening at the historical society didn’t provide much information for my cooking adventure, I’m looking forward to learning more about the Gulf Breeze founders. Sally tells me the first Mayor Pro Tem  was an alligator wrestler. That fact makes me realize one thing: I am not ready to fry gator like Majorie did.

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Allan Davis, who once wrestled alligators at roadside attractions near Miami, became an Everglades expert and tour guide. He served as Gulf Breeze’s Mayor Pro Tem and ran the landmark Allan Davis Sea Shells on Highway 98 in Gulf Breeze. PHOTO FROM GULF BREEZE 50TH ANNIVERSARY, Gulf Breeze News.

TIPS ON COOING ALLIGATOR FROM NOLACOM
ALLIGATOR GUMBO RECIPE

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