What is a cracker in Florida?
No one disputes the fact that Florida Crackers exist, but the definition and attribution of the term can be hotly argued. In early English literature (1500s), the term was used in a number of instances (including William Shakespeare). What is a Florida Cracker? The earliest use of the term cracker generally referred to a rural underclass of people.
What is the meaning of Florida Cracker?
By the early 1700s, the term “cracker” continued to be used to describe rural people in the South as evidenced by a letter sent to the Earl of Dartmouth stating,
“I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls (sic) on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.”
This less-than-flattering description continued into Florida culture in several ways.
Settlements Attempted in Florida
Cattle were brought to the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage and subsequent Spanish explorers added to the herds. By the late 1500s herds of cattle were introduced into Mexico.
In Florida, multiple explorers brought cattle and hogs for food and as work animals. Many cattle were lost into the wilderness or abandoned by attempted settlements.
By the mid-1800s, cattle were abundant in the wilds of south-central Florida. Rounding them up for domestic use were the “Cowkeepers”.
Later called cowboys, the crack of their whips branded them as “Crackers”. In Florida, they became Florida Crackers.
The cowboy Florida crackers were mainly in central and southwest Florida. During the same period, there were other crackers in remote parts of Florida.
Far Reaches of Florida Had Crackers
They were the settlers, farmers, fishermen, hunters and trappers, Many led self-sufficient lifestyles living as hunters, gatherers and homesteaders.
Many of these wilderness “Crackers”, blazed the trail for new settlers and found ways to earn a living by foraging for food and game.
Some became trappers, ship makers and became scouts for explorers and armies.
Who Became Crackers
Partner, be careful how you use the term Florida Cracker. Most people in Florida who call themselves crackers are proud of their history. They are the ones who grew up in rural Florida.
Florida Crackers were hard-working people encountering hardships in Florida’s forests, swamps, watery plains and harsh seasonal coastal weather. These are the people who eventually dotted the countryside with farms, rounded up the cattle for our food, harvested our salt and settled the remote areas.
A Florida Cracker was an immigrant, slave, native American, or farmer, and all were the new Floridians we call Crackers.
Some Crackers became plantation owners, politicians and business owners. They were the heart and sole of a brand new nation called the United States of America.
The Meaning of Cracker Changes
Still, after they were the backbone of Florida, the term “cracker” has connotated some negative meanings from outsiders. Some people say the crack of the whips came from slave owners, not cowboys. The term was around long before the slave issues were raised.
Some use the term to refer to poor people. Others use the term as a negative reflection on a person’s character or race.
Basically, the term can be derogatory – if meant that way! If you are a Florida cracker, you are more than likely very proud of being a cracker!
What is a Florida Cracker House?
While Florida was struggling to find ways to become a state and settle a wild dangerous country, cracker had to be resourceful. They had to find ways to find food, water and, most importantly, shelter.
The Florida settler had to use what was available to them to make a shelter from the rain, sun, wind and people and things that wanted to harm him.
The house had to be secure, comfortable, inexpensive to build and be at a location that was close to other needs.
Beyond those considerations, the house had to be simple, constructed quickly and provide as much relief as possible from the sweltering heat.
Some of the key features of what we now call a Cracker House are:
- hallway from front to back for air.
- fireplace for heat and cooking.
- from early thatched roofs to metal in the 19th century.
- raised floors.
- many houses had verandas that protected doors and windows from the sun.
Florida Cracker Food
One of the common attributes of being a “cracker” is their simplicity. That forced trait applied to their food. Simple, but delicious food is what they ate.
The less-than-popular food of the Florida cowboy who was constantly moving was swamp cabbage (heart of palm), cornbread, salted beef jerky, grits and corn pone, only slightly different than cornbread.
In northern Florida, food seemed to be much better for the home-based crackers.
Many ate venison, catfish, fried green tomatoes, boiled peanuts, hoe cakes, grits and gravy. In coastal areas, Florida crackers could rely on oysters, mullet and even alligator meat.
In all cases, Florida cracker food was based on simplistic cooking and accessibility. Even the cowboys came upon the occasional possum, snake or armadillo that became dinner!
Cracker cooks used an iron stove or fireplace hearth for cooking, baking and heating. Many foods were fried in an iron pot using whatever fat most common in the area.
As the population and farms increased, crackers had more access to flour, pork, spices and vegetables. Chickens were easily raised but at their peril of Florida predators.
Today you can find some of the best fried chicken in the country along the Spanish Trail (Route 90) in north Florida. That is still cracker country up there.
The Hoecake History
Hoecakes are the essence of Florida Cracker life – simple sustainment.
Hoecake recipes can be found all over the internet. Most are more like pancakes than true hoecakes. People forget that pioneers, first settlers and Florida crackers didn’t have many luxuries like leaveners, flours, sweeteners and other ingredients.
Native Americans showed early settlers how to grow corn. Corn was ground and it was cooked in some kind of fat – it’s just that simple. This simple cake kept many early settlers from starving.
The simple recipe is here –
1 Cup of cornmeal
1 1/4 cup of warm water
1/2 tsp. salt.
(Most of today’s recipes have flour added)
Mix all ingredients together and let sit for 15 minutes. In a medium hot skillet, place small cakes of mixture in some kind of flavorful fat (butter, bacon grease, etc.). Lightly brown the cakes on each side. Honey or maple syrup adds a little sweetness when eating.
They say that hoecakes are were cooked on the top of wooden stoves, in the bottom of iron pots and yes, on the blades of shovels and hoes. Many times the fire built at a night campground was used for heat.
Today’s Florida Cracker
While most living conditions are far different than the previous couple hundred years, many people continue the cracker lifestyle in rural Florida throughout the state. A drive along the aforementioned Route 90 from St. Augustine to Pensacola, Florida will find evidence of old lifestyles in today’s world – simplicity is the description.
A stop at any restaurant along the way will reveal a menu that reflects Florida’s history and cultural differences when it comes to available food. A focus on vegetables, basic grains, and easily raised local meat highlights rural northern cuisine.
In southern Florida, cattle is still a major product. Florida ranks 12th in the list of most beef production. The cowboys of today fare much better than their counterparts from a couple centuries ago, but it is still hard, hot work!
Without the original Florida crackers, it’s hard to imagine who would have paved the way for modern society? Who would have cleared the land, settled the forests, foraged the coastline, fought for our land, and tended the herds?
Many of those same jobs are still filled with today’s hard-working Florida crackers.