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 comment:

  1. Awesome Experience ... I Loved it