Settlers moved south with small herds of family cows while others were setting up homesteads with the promise of branding and claiming the cattle that roamed free at the time. By the late 1880s, these Cracker homesteads were beginning to show some progress and hope for a better tomorrow. Barbed-wire fence led to better control of cattle, and large-scale commercial agriculture introduced new crops to the state. They planted, harvested, cooked, baked, canned and preserved.
Other parts of the country were discovering rural Florida through the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her book Palmetto Leaves, with stories centered around her orange grove and winter home on a bluff overlooking the Saint Johns River, in Mandarin. Stowe described the scent of orange blossoms as having “a stimulating effect on our nerves—a sort of dreamy intoxication” describing the beautiful orange groves with their “stately orange tree, thirty feet high with spreading, graceful top and varnished green leaves, full of golden fruit.”
She told of Indian raids and shooting gators, but she also introduced the charming state to a whole new group of wealthy people who came to visit and chose to stay and make a home in the sparsely populated Sunshine State. Finding a cook proved to be a challenge, as she declares the extent and knowledge of their cooking was to mix meal with water and salt for hoecakes and to fry salt pork or ham or chicken. She describes catching fish for dinner: A hole is “dug in the smooth white sand; and a fire of dry light wood is merrily crackling therein…the fire has burned low, and the sand-hole is thoroughly heated… great broad bonnet-leaves” are used to double-line the hole and the fish are baked clambake style. When removed “the whole external part of the fish–scales, skin, and fins–comes off, leaving the meat white and pure, and deliciously juicy.”
A classic Florida cookbook still in print today was written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of Cross Creek is Cross Creek Cookery, first published in 1942. It reads like one of her stories, with recipes throughout the book. Describing what it was like living on her orange grove at Cross Creek with her cow Dora and her cook Idella, the book is funny and fun to read. Some of the recipes are original and others are borrowed, such as the first one in the book for “Mrs. Chaney’s Spanish Bean Soup” from the Tampa mayor’s wife.
She offered three versions for the preparation of swamp cabbage: using the thinly sliced white cylinder with a French dressing, boiled with bacon, salt and pepper, similar to the dish served at the Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, or boiled with butter, cream and salt.
(A Culinary History of Florida, Harris)