Diary: Patricia Storace, Idella’s Crisp Biscuits, a Florida recipe

We tend to look at recipes as strangely disembodied, just as we overlook the food on the table in the many paintings of the Last Supper and neglect to imagine the invisible people who prepared it. Our attention is fixed on the company. Yet the loaves of bread and the platters of lamb are emblems of how much of reality is invisible to us. They have taken form in a kitchen. They may even have been cooked by Jesus’s follower Martha, the patron saint of housekeeping. The words “Take, eat, this is my body which is given up for you” are implicit in the bread that is to be broken, which has been kneaded, pounded, rolled, baked, and offered by the arms and hands of women, a physical prayer. The kitchen is the locus of death and resurrection in any house.

Idella’s Crisp Biscuits is a recipe for a quintessential Southern hot bread, from the novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s 1942 Cross Creek Cookery, the writer’s culinary companion to her portrait of the rural north central Florida community of Cross Creek, where she also wrote her beloved novel, The Yearling, still widely taught in American schools.

Though Rawlings was a northerner, she loved Cross Creek with a bridal passion—it was the landscape that requited her imagination, and she lived in it fully, camping, hunting, fishing, growing oranges, raising ducks, and nurturing a legendary Jersey cow named Dora, who “nibbled on my coral honeysuckle and my oranges” and the cow-pea hay Rawlings raised specially for her feed. Cross Creek Cookery made the recipes based on Dora’s cream (rising to a depth of three-quarters of an inch on a pan of milk) and butter famous. If anything, Dora is a more pervasive presence in the book than Idella, the cook with whom for ten years Marjorie Rawlings shared her Cross Creek life, the “perfect maid” referred to in Rawlings’s letters.

Florida in the 1940s was a world of exotic landscapes, animals, and flavors; because so much food was hunted and foraged, Rawlings and her neighbors were spared many wartime privations.  Rawlings’s literary celebrity and gift for hospitality, combined with the glamour of Florida, made Cross Creek a place of pilgrimage: Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist Marcia Davenport and her lover Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, were among the guests. There is an amusing vignette of a self-absorbed Wallace Stevens, the poet, demanding a menu for his special diet, but wolfing down instead the richer dishes Rawlings had prepared for her other guests. Rawlings, an impulsive and imperious woman, snatched the ignored lean sherried beef she’d painstakingly prepared for him and tossed it to her cherished dog, a pointer, lying on the hearth.

Craig Claiborne, a southerner and a pioneering food editor at The New York Times, as well as a critic and cookbook author, wrote of Cross Creek Cookery that it was one of the “best and most concentrated and authentic books on southern cooking.”

It is. And it is not.

It is an extraordinary culinary biography of a region, captured at the moment before interstate highways destroyed so much American vernacular cooking. The recipes are almost like still-life paintings, vivid souvenirs of a natural world preserved in words, recipes, and flavors.

Here is the repertoire of hot breads, a daily component of every meal (many not labor-intensive and quickly prepared), and the uncommon preserves, including kumquat and roselle, that accompanied them. Here are game dishes, exotic to us, but familiar in Rawlings’s Florida, like Pot Roast of Bear. “A young male bear in the off-season,” according to Rawlings, “provides meat better than the best beef.”  There are methods to prepare Alligator-Tail Steak (resembling veal), squirrel, dove, coot, and ricebird pie. Rawlings records a recipe for soft-shell cooter turtle fried in egg batter, declaring it to be far superior to fried chicken. Cross Creek was also a world in which the domains of hunting and foraging were neither exclusively male nor female; Rawlings’s neighbor Dessie was a superb shot, while her friend Ed Hopkins was both an expert forager and cook.

Cross Creek Cookery, though, for all its pastoral glory, is also inauthentic—for it was the work of two authors, an unacknowledged collaboration between Marjorie Rawlings and Idella Parker, her cook and “perfect maid.” We know this because Idella Parker wrote two fine memoirs, 1992’s Idella: Marjorie Rawlings’ Perfect Maid and 1999’s Idella Parker: From Reddick to Cross Creek. Idella Parker was wished, lied, and dreamed to the margins of Cross Creek Cookery. (Even a blurb on Idella’s 1992 memoir describes the book as “more information about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings from an African-American woman,” though Idella significantly titled each of her books with her own name.) Rawlings’s cookbook is a romance of the dining room; Idella’s is the autobiography of a kitchen. Read together, these books shape a kind of culinary—and racial—fugue, in which we can taste the life of Cross Creek.

Idella Parker was as fascinating a figure as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The daughter of a sharecropper from Reddick, Florida, she was a descendant of Nat Turner, the leader of Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, the largest rebellion against white plantation owners in American history. She was born in 1914, after post-Reconstruction laws had been put in place to undo the freedoms blacks had been awarded after the Civil War.

Parker’s childhood Florida was one of widespread re-enslavement through debt. Workers would be perpetually indebted through exorbitant fees charged for basic necessities at their factory commissaries; it was a crime under Florida labor laws for any worker to leave the service of an employer to whom he was indebted. In addition, Florida’s economic backbone industries—railroads, farms, turpentine, lumber, and mining—leased convict laborers to supply their work force. Workers who tried to escape their employers ended up in the convict labor force, as did many blacks jailed on trumped-up charges. (The journalist John L Spivak’s 1932 novel, Hard Times on a Southern Chain Gang, is a chilling portrait of the system.) And all of this is part of the food Idella cooked and ate.

Idella was brought up on the sharecropper trinity of corn grits, cornmeal, and the cured meat and sausage from the annual hog killing in the fall; the men killed and butchered, the women prepared the meats, while the children’s job was to keep the smokehouse fires going. Her household supplied its own vegetables, eggs, and milk, and cane syrup from the sugar cane they raised. Flour and store-bought sugar were luxuries, appearing only at Christmastime in cakes and pies. Idella later relished the luxury of being able to experiment with ingredients in Marjorie Rawlings’s kitchen, and of being able to repeat recipes to perfect them for the cookbook. You can identify Idella’s basic vocabulary of dishes: the ones based on hunger, refined through craft, made with the simplest ingredients, that you have one chance to get right. “At home in Reddick, I would have had to be careful, because we did not have the money to go to the store whenever we ran out of things,” she wrote.

Despite the family’s poverty, they managed to send Idella to the Bethune-Cookman Institute in Daytona Beach, founded by the legendary Mary McLeod Bethune, the “First Lady of the Struggle,” and later the only woman of color to be a delegate at the San Francisco Conference of 1945 that established the United Nations. Bethune represented the NAACP along with W.E.B. Dubois and Walter White. Idella must have developed her cooking as well as academic skills there; the institute offered cooking classes, while its first students and faculty raised money for the school by selling homemade ice cream, sweet potato pie, and fried fish to workers at the town dump, adjacent to the land Bethune had been able to acquire for her school. Idella later developed her skills as a cook for a wealthy West Palm Beach couple.

Preparing to take another job, Idella was more or less abducted by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The novelist, having heard that a friend had hired a talented cook, drove to Idella’s house, wrote her a check, and told her to pack, against her protests that she was committed elsewhere. Rawlings in due course drove her to rural Cross Creek, an unknown area that had a reputation for hostility to blacks. Idella, with “that cold fear we all had of whites in those days,” was too frightened to say no. She was unnerved when, shattering convention, Rawlings told her to sit next to her in the front seat—“Always sit in front with me”—but even more afraid to refuse.

The simple, elegant house at Cross Creek, with its flower gardens and fruit orchards, surrounded by dark, overgrown forests filled with reptiles and wild animal cries, was a fairy-tale enclave, “like discovering a magic garden in the midst of a jungle.” Idella was to share the tenant house with the rest of the staff. She resided there with four strangers in a ramshackle structure “with an outhouse behind” and a tin washtub hung on a nail for a bathtub.

There, for the next ten years, each woman lived the contorted double life that doctrinal racial inequality imposes. They shared an ambivalent potential friendship truncated by the capricious power that the white woman could impose on the black; Rawlings loved Idella without respect, and Idella loved Rawlings without trust. They were colleagues in the kitchen, though Rawlings would only intermittently acknowledge this. Idella made Cross Creek’s celebrated mango ice cream, “peeling, mashing, and straining the mango, mixing the cream and sugar, and cranking that old ice cream maker,” though the recipe is listed under “Dora’s Ice Creams,” the name of Rawlings’s cow. Rawlings filled their cookbook with Idella’s recipes, but only gave her credit for three of them. It was Idella who tested the recipes again and again in the sweltering kitchen, which was equipped with only a wood-burning stove. “All I ever got from the cookbook was an autographed copy,” Idella wrote.

Cross Creek’s idyll was based on the sacrifice of Idella. The house was dependent on the hospitality of those who were denied hospitality themselves. When the black novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston came to dinner, her professional stature earned her a place at the table. But when Rawlings, an alcoholic who often drank herself unconscious, poured the drinks too freely for Hurston to drive home, she was not housed in a Cross Creek guest room but sent off to share Idella’s bed.

It was a house without the bedrock foundation of shared memories. Rawlings writes: “When Idella and I are alone … it never occurs to me to turn out an elaborate meal without ‘company’ to partake.” Idella writes: “On nights we were alone, I served Mrs. R each course just as I did when guests were there. Then I would go in the kitchen to eat my dinner.”

Rawlings was capable of flashes of insight into the life she made for Idella, making gestures on her behalf that were also displays of power. She paid for Idella to be trained as a hairdresser, saying, “I never want you to ever have to work for another white woman.”

That training made Idella’s escape possible. She left Cross Creek after Rawlings for a third time insisted on her company during a drunken joy ride, involving her in a third nearly fatal accident. Idella went home to Reddick and never returned to Cross Creek in Rawlings’s lifetime, though Rawlings repeatedly sent her letters with overtones of stalking: “I’m waiting for you … Meet me at Cross Creek.” Idella was afraid that if she returned, Rawlings’s rage might be uncontrollable. “I didn’t meet her … I was afraid to … I wasn’t sure what would happen to me if I went.”

Idella went on to live a fruitful life of dignity and purpose. She joined the NAACP, working as a community liaison, made a happy marriage, and became a teacher of domestic science. She summed up her relationship with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings with a legend from her Reddick past. In the tale, a white woman and a black woman, equals only in exhaustion and in poverty, communicate in song, although they never meet. The black woman sings the traditional hymn, “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” The white woman sings her reply, “No, not one. No, not one.”

I have another thought, of countless stars in that crown. As many as the crisp biscuits Idella made from childhood on, nearly every day of her life.

Idella’s Crisp Biscuits
These are true Southern biscuits, not flaky but, as Rawlings says, “as crisp as shortbread.” They are the biscuits of the culinary proverb, “Take two and butter them while they’re hot.” You don’t split them, just butter the top. They are like bite-sized punctuation marks in the sequence of a meal. These elegant morsels will ruin you for the flaky biscuits popularized by chain restaurants.

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder (standard double-acting is fine, though I also often use Edna Lewis’s homemade formula, easily found on the internet or in A Taste of Country Cooking)
¾ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
¾ cup milk

At Cross Creek, this quantity served 4, but I think it will easily serve 6-8.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients together, then cut in butter. Add the milk gradually, mixing with a large fork until the dough coheres. The dough will be tender and fragrant with the incorporated butter. On a floured surface, roll the dough into a circle, one time only, to a thickness of ¼ inch. Cut in one-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter or narrow glass. Bake on a baking sheet for 12-15 minutes, then bring to the table in a basket lined with a napkin to hold the heat. If you fill a container with the ready-sifted mixture of dry ingredients, these can easily be made on a weeknight. They are a true delicacy.

Patricia Storace’s most recent book is the novel, The Book of Heaven, in which the intimate histories of eating and storytelling are also deeply entwined. She is also the author of Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece and a book of poems, Heredity. This is the second in a series of diaries on reading and cooking: read the firstthirdfourth, fifth and sixth here.

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Image: Kitchen at the Rawlings house in Cross Creek, now administered as a historic site by the Florida State Parks system. Photo: C. Bertelsen