Sunday, June 19, 2011

Gettin’ Some Cooter in Cross Creek

The Yearling
14531 E. County Road 325
Cross Creek, FL

Homesick but it’s alright
Lochloosa is on my mind
She’s on my mind
-- “Lochloosa” by JJ Grey & Mofro

What’s on your mind when you think of Florida?

If it is cars driving on the world’s most famous beach, 45 story high-rises filled with Jewish widows from Brooklyn or a giant mouse, well, you should come down here to the shores of Lochloosa Lake.

If you do you’ll understand why songwriter JJ Grey can’t help but feeling homesick for the place.
This is the Florida not of amusement parks, golf courses and snow-fleeing Yankee refugees but rather horse farms, fresh water springs and winding country roads canopied by Spanish moss-draped live oak trees.

It’s a slow Southern landscape that has inspired poets and writers from JJ Grey to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for her book “The Yearling” about a fictional local boy and his pet deer.

Almost all of Rawlings’ writings were based on the local animals, cuisine and characters who lived around the 72 acre Cross Creek orange grove she adopted as her home. From preachers to moonshiners, the Cracker culture of 20th Century North Florida was a never-ending source of inspiration for Rawlings.

“Half-wild backwoods country,” she called it.

I’m happy to say, not much has changed in Cross Creek during the 58 years since she died. You can still tour her home and orange grove.

And a stone’s throw from there, The Yearling restaurant is still serving up pretty much the same authentic Cracker cooking Rawlings loved to write about.

A ramshackle joint that has been standing here beside County Road 325 for almost six decades, where else are you going to go to get yourself some fried cooter and frog legs?

The Yearling serves it all – venison, oysters, crabs, quail, alligator. And cooter.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Cooter is soft shell turtle, a local delicacy once abundant that’s getting harder to find around these parts. And is apparently – in the right hands, any way – quite tasty.

The Yearling dining room is patrolled by waitresses wearing bright Yearling T-shirts that proclaim “Eat Mo Cooter”, with a friendly looking tortoise on the back.

The Yearling restaurant is cluttered with memorabilia from “The Yearling” book and “The Yearling” movie. Old timey bottles and cans decorate the shotgun mounted mantle above the working fire place.

Best of all is the sound track to this rustic Southern setting – Willie Green.

Willie sits in a chair alone in the middle of the dining room picking his guitar, blowing his harmonica and singing old acoustic blues tunes. And chatting with the eclectic mix of locals and out-of-towners.

Hovering somewhere near the 80 year mark, Willie is a local blues legend. The real deal. You just know sitting there watching him and listening that Willie has been more places and seen more stuff go down than even the most traveled suit in a strange place.

Old time Southern blues performed live by a real life legend. An authentic rustic atmosphere. Shotgun on the mantle.

I know this place sounds like it has all the markings of Suit757 Hall of Famer.

Unfortunately, the food and prices hold the Yearling down a notch.

First of all, they were out of cooter.

Bummer. No cooter tonight for Suit757.

I ordered the combo plate of frog legs, soft shell crab, alligator and catfish. And fried green tomatoes for an appetizer.

While tasty and enjoyable, all five items were fried with the identical batter, lessening a bit the excitement of sampling such a wide range of creatures out of the swamp.

No one comes to The Yearling for culinary creativity.

The tomatoes were battered, fried and served with ranch dressing. Everything else was battered, fried and served with cocktail sauce. No exotic seasonings or fancy remoulade sauces here.

Simple. Familiar. And just bit monotonous.

Hey, if you want creative Southern cooking, go to Asheville. If you want authentic Cracker cuisine, come to Cross Creek.

It seemed a bit early to me for soft shell crab season, but my waitress insisted they were fresh. More batter and shell than crab meat, these soft shells weren’t going to make me forget about the Chesapeake Bay any time soon.

Big and meaty, the catfish fillet needed a few shakes of hot sauce to rise above its bland batter.

The star of the plate was the gator, tender succulent chunks of fried reptile tail meat. I always find some sick pleasure in chowing down on an animal bigger and more dangerous than me. This tasty swamp creature didn’t disappoint.

If you’ve never had Southern fried frog legs, The Yearling is a good place to try them. These appendages were pulled off some mighty large amphibians, producing a surprisingly generous portion of meat.

The texture and taste of swampy chicken wings, eating fried frog legs while listening to Willie Green’s low down Southern blues is way more fun than riding Space Mountain.

The side dishes of cole slaw, hush puppies and collard greens were pretty standard. Again, nothing to elevate them to shirt-buying accolades.

I was somewhat amused by the beer selection.

The chalk board at the bar bragged about having over a dozen beers. Except it was like The Yearling went out of its way to stock its bar with the most ubiquitous twelve beers in America. Not one unusual or unique offering.

Of course that’s not too surprising considering the setting. If you are looking for microbrews, don’t go to a traditional Southern restaurant in Florida. The Sunshine State has the worst beer variety of all 50.

So I ordered the most out-of-place beer on the list – Negra Modelo.

Yeah, the dark Mexican beer you can find at every neighborhood order-by-numbers Mexican joint. My waitress asked me to repeat it three times. Apparently Negra Modelo is not a big seller to accompany fried swamp critters.

But the best part of the meal came at the very end. Sour orange pie.

This has to be one of the ten best desserts of all time.

Made from fresh oranges picked from the groves right here in Cross Creek, this is a powerfully sweet pie.

The look and texture of an orangey key lime pie, sour orange pie is sweeter and less tart.

Drizzled with chocolate syrup and accompanied by whipped cream, this pie deserves celebrity status. Instead of being relegated to being a meal capper in some swampy obscure corner of North Florida, sour orange pie needs to be discovered by some Food Network bigwigs because every American deserves to try this once.

Man, I’m serious. Forget free health care for life. Sour orange pie for all!

Unfortunately, my sudden out-of-character generosity waned considerably once I got the bill.

After throwing a five in Willie’s tip bucket, my evening was just over $60. Sixty big ones for some fried swamp creatures, two beers, a few fried tomatoes and a slice of pie?

Normally if I’m going to dine at a place that runs sixty bucks per head, I’m going to demand an ocean view or a harem of tabletop belly dancers. Or something.

I mean, it’s not like you are paying for the property taxes or overhead at this rustic shack in the woods. And I’m pretty sure they paid off the mortgage some time over the past six decades. Even poor Willie, rumor has it, only gets paid what comes out of his tip bucket at the end of the night.

So I’m not sure what the justification is for the Ruth’s Chris pricing.

But then again, as Willie would probably agree, cooter just ain’t as easy to get as it once was.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt, But I Didn’t Have Any Money Left.
Yearling Restaurant on Urbanspoon


  1. Awesome Experience ... I Loved it

  2. Even when the cupboard's not bare of cooter, nobody cooks them rascals like Junior did back in the 80's. His cooking put em on the map. That young feller sure could make a tough 'ol turtle tender and his frog legs were so sweet you just had to go straight home and slap yur mammy. Of course, the frogs don't taste as good as they did back then anyway cuz now they're growed on farms in Chiny stead of out back in Orange Lake where Marjorie hunted em. There's still plenty of them scappers out on the lake mind you, but the trouble of it is, soon after a polytician moved here we got us a new law say'in them airboats had to be offen the water by nightfall. We reckon his wife couldn't sleep fer all the racket them blow boats made froggin all night. True, decades of deep rooted cracker tradition were destroyed in a single day by the democrat from Tallnsassy trying to please his gal but, hey, he did manage to get the potholed asphalt pathway through Cross Creek widened an paved with real blacktop. Its called "political influence" when the talk is of roads around here and "good-ol-boy corruption" when speaking of airboats and frogs. I cain't bellyache too much cause now I can fill a croaker sack using my mud motor boat (what I call a poor man's airboat cause it's all this poor man can afford), without gettin run over by more affluent rednecks in noisy airboats. And cooters? There's still aplenty of em and you don't even have to set a trotline to get em. Come spring they crawl acrost the new road and you can pick em up like I done day afore yestiday. Now I face the turrible job o skinin the dern thing. That's what got me to Googlin "cooter" on my inner net, to see if there was airy a u tube show on them tasty soft-shell slow pokes. Looks like I'm gonna be the first to make one cause all they have is a few with n-uendos bout the other, unchristian-like, meaning of the word. Frogs and turtles has always been close to one another in the lake, as well as on the menu, but in terms o cleaning effort they both hold places on extremes of the spectrum (didn't thank I knowed big words, much less how to spel em, did ya?). Them frogs is the easiest critter to clean that God ever dreamed up, but them cooters is somethin else entiredly! They's tied with garfish & armadillys fer last place on the list o creetures I love to eat so much I'm willin to take on the pain of dressin em. I learnt my distaste for the task the year Watermelon Pond almost dried up. Me an the ol gal I was hitched to then (I think she were my 2nd or 3rd) run us a trotline and catched 82 of them head hidin, finger snappin fools! That, my friend, was the day I figgered out commercial fishing weren't never gonna be no occupation of this ol boy. Fact is, I'd do near bout anything to put off the chore, cludin runin my yapper to strangers about livin in the woods near a fine country eatery for 40 some years (ceptin the few I spent up the road fer growin wacky backy). Yeah it ain't zactly been no bed o spanish moss fer us and ours livin out here in the swamp but it sure beats gettin poked in the eye with a sharp stick (which don't happen much now that I quit coon huntin at night.) I don't even have to waste any ammo (I'm savin it fer them "homeland secrecy" boys) to fill my freezer with venizen cuz them big trucks running the road kills em deadern a hammer. Free food ain't the only friends benefit we get livin amongst the magnolias, blue jays and red birds either, we get into the Marjorie Rawlings State Historical Park anytime we want (except Saturdays, Sundays and holidays) plum free, without even having to break in! Well I cain't put if off no longer. Hit's time to butcher that beast and make a home muvy. Now iffin I can only figur out where to load the film in this here finger camera. I know its a finger camera cause it says "digital" on it.
    P.S. Jesus put the Cross in Cross Creek!

    1. OOOps To set the record straight. The handshaker mentioned is a Republican. Who'd a thunk it?

    2. Wow. That just might be the single most eloquent comment in the history of this website!

      What soul-crushing disappointment to hear that Yearling froglegs now come from a farm in China thanks to the liberty-robbers in Tallahassee.

      Next time I'm hankerin' for some authentic froglegs and cooter, I think I'll skip the Yearling and come knock on your shack. I'll bring the beverages.