"Does anyone have an idea of what a cracker is, outside of George Zimmerman?," chef Greg Baker asked his audience at last weekend's Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.
None of the two dozen or so session-goers raised their hands. Baker, who's already earned accolades for The Refinery in Tampa, is now opening Fodder & Shine partly to improve eaters' understandings of Florida cracker culture and its cuisine.
Cracker status is a point of pride in Florida, where it's understood to refer to deep roots in the state. According to Baker, the "last-known Native Floridian" died in Cuba in the 1750s, leaving the land up for grabs by settlers from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
"You could come to Florida and start a ranch just by finding cattle," Baker said of the wannabe cowboys who populated the region. "But it's really highly impractical. You can't use ropes." Since the landscape wasn't compatible with long-distance lassoing, early Floridians instead cracked whips to get their cows' attentions.
"They were not necessarily poor, humble people," Baker said of the first crackers and their descendants.
But they were people who had to adjust their diets to fit the area's topography and climate. Scrub and sand didn't just interfere with roping techniques: They dictated agricultural practices.
What thrived in northern Florida were Datil peppers, brought from either Spain or the Caribbean by indentured servants who were assigned to grow indigo (the enterprise quickly flopped); sugar cane; rice and tomatoes. Floridians also grew fern-like coontie for flour.
"I'm really working hard to get someone to create this again," Baker sighed. "Unfortunately, it's kind of high in cyanide."
When Fodder & Shine opens this fall, Baker will likely rely on cassava and other flours for his bread products, which are slated to include Seminole fry bread and hardtack. Other planned menu items include fried mullet and tomato gravy; alligator and perloo. Since cracker recipes weren't enshrined in an early cookbook, Baker drew much of his inspiration from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' writings.
"These are great Florida traditions," he said.
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