It seemed to me that my first Christmas at Cross Creek would break my heart. I knew better than to expect snow on Christmas Eve. It was unreasonable to be outraged by a temperature of 75 degrees, hot blazing sunshine and red birds singing lustily instead of Christmas carolers. A half, or is it a fourth, of the world is warm at Christmas time. I had moved to the sub-tropics, and the lush life had become my life. Yet the bland air infuriated me. In pique, I built a great roaring log fire in the living room of the old Florida farmhouse – and was obliged to fling wide all doors and windows. But as I set the table on the sunny veranda for Christmas dinner, the yellow flames in the open fireplace were comforting.
I was further appalled when, at one o’clock, shortly before I was ready to serve dinner, two rural neighbors named Moe and Whitey appeared in clean blue jeans and blue shirts for a visit. I hinted that the family dinner was ready and their expressions grew polite and also acquiescent. Why didn’t they go home? In desperation, I invited them to have dinner with us. To my horror, they accepted. The wreck of the day was complete.
Since then, I have come to love the lazy and casual Florida backwoods Christmas. The function of all such festive days is to give us a sense of cozy hominess, of belonging to something stable and lovely. And it is all a matter of the things to which one is accustomed. Now that Cross Creek is “home”, I should be as infuriated as on that first Christmas day, if snow fell, and sparrows pecked at ice. The red bird’s song is the accepted Christmas paean. And miracle of miracles, we have in abundance our own holly and mistletoe. The Christmas tree is not a symbol in Cracker Florida, but every family breaks mistletoe to hang above the fireplace, and cuts a great bough of holly to stand upright, bright with red berries, in a corner of the pine cabin.
The men, and some of the women, consider Christmas as one of the great days for hunting. That, too, goes back to something solid and important, when men made their living, pioneer fashion, in the woods. The relation of man to nature continues. It is the mode to cook for Christmas dinner whatever the men bring down with their guns. That, too, is stable and is good. I myself consider that game, quail, dove, rabbit, turkey, or venison, is better when aged a bit in the icebox. But in the old days there were no iceboxes, and folks lived and ate from day to day and meal to meal. And having partaken of Christmas dinner in the Big Scrub and in other remote places, I cannot say that fresh-killed meat is any the less delicious. The men have brought it in and the women have cooked it, and an old, good way of life is maintained. The beverage is likely to be Florida “corn”, or moonshine liquor, with, for the more delicate or puritanical women, home-made Scuppernong or blackberry or elderberry wine.
What men hunt for Christmas dinner depends on what game frequents their locale. In the Big Scrub, in Gulf Hammock, in the Florida Everglades, it is wild turkey or deer. At Cross Creek, it is quail or dove or rabbit or wild ducks. On Christmas morning, after the cows have been milked, the wood for kitchen range and fireplaces brought in, “Little Will”, the colored grove men, asks for permission to hunt. I understand why the morning chores have been done so early and so efficiently. Permission is given. This last year, Little Will was gone exactly one hour. He came in with five wild Mallard ducks for Christmas dinner at the tenant house. I questioned him. All through the fall, he had observed, bringing in the cows from the lakeside hammock, that a flock of wild Mallards, was “using” in a little cove on Cross Creek. All Little Will had to do was crouch on the bank and bring down his Christmas dinner. I was, frankly, jealous, having gone to great trouble in far places to shoot wild ducks. Little Will had never mentioned to me the flock at my back door. He was assuring his own Christmas, and quite rightly.
Turkey is not necessarily the main Christmas dish in rural Florida. Unless one can have wild turkey, so many other wild meats are available and more than acceptable. Little Will’s acquisition of wild ducks put an idea in my own head. For some years I have had my own flock of Mallard ducks. They were raised originally from a setting of eggs from the Carolina marshes hatched under one of my game hens. The flock grew in size, until some years I have had as many as seventy ducks. They live and range freely, never leave the orange grove, and their meat is especially flavorsome because of their diet of mash, scratch feed and skimmed milk in addition to their natural foods of greens, frogs and insects. They are fatter and in flavor much sweeter than truly wild ducks, yet less fat and greasy and insipid than market domestic ducks. While I still sometimes have turkey for Christmas dinner, I am more likely to have my Mallard ducks. The day makes a suitable occasion for cutting down their inordinate and expensive numbers. The flock costs as much to feed as two or three mules!
Here is my menu for Christmas duck dinner at Cross Creek:
Baked sherry grapefruit
Tiny cornmeal muffins
Braised white onions
Sweet potatoes in orange baskets
Tart jelly – currant, wild grape or wild plum
Dry red wine, Burgundy or claret