The highlight of my second grade experience was a field trip to the home of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Cross Creek, Florida is far from the commotion of city life, insulated by lakes to the east and west and state preserves to the north and south. The memory of my time in Cross Creek would be a little fuzzier if it weren’t for my rambunctious infatuation with chasing wildlife and inevitably getting my shoes dirty. My mother, upon picking me up from school and scoffing at the mud that made its way up my socks, asked me about my favorite part of the day. I innocently responded, “We saw a bunch of cooters and I almost caught one!” I looked up and caught my mom in a moment of utter perplexity. I watched as her inner eyebrows descended and jaw plopped halfway open. In those few seconds of silence, I wasn’t sure if she was going to laugh or scream.
“Excuse me, what did you just say,” she commanded.
My mother, raised in California, had not yet caught onto all of the words used by the surrounding southern Crackers. And at seven years old, I would have never thought that “cooter” could have been used to describe anything other than a turtle. As I would come to learn through the rest of my childhood exposures to Cracker culture, cooters not only separate individuals of different speech communities, but the cooter is also an integral part of the Cracker sociability and food culture. Even the word “cooter” itself sounds most authentic when voiced with a southern twang.
After calling Gainesville home for 20 years now, my dad and I have found ourselves increasingly intertwined with our southern surroundings. On warm 70 degree January days when the sun feels as close as a campfire, we venture across town and down rocky limestone roads to Payne’s Prairie. A wooden barrier gate decorated with Spanish moss is a reminder to deposit however many dollar bills we have into a rusted mailbox asking for the La Chua trail park entrance fee. There is no security guard – only a shared sense of how important the prairie is to locals. La Chua trail winds its way to the heart of the marshy prairie, allowing you to experience wild, untamed Florida much like the early pioneer settlers did. The fertile prairie floor is gorged with water. Each step relieves the spongy soil of some of its fluid. Wild horses, alligators, cooters, bison, and bobcats roam among the water lilies, blue-flag iris, and tall grasses. Many other families are out walking the trail engaged in casual conversation, but cicada croaks and bird chirps produce a tranquil hum. Alligators are plentiful and are the preserve’s main attraction, but cooters are just as common as their prehistoric companions. My favorite cooters are missing hind legs from hungry alligators, but continue to romp over alligators looking for the perfect spot to sun themselves.
Cooters are members of the largest family of freshwater turtles in the Cracker South, which spans from the flat longleaf pine forests in Georgia to the rolling hills of the Florida panhandle. If there aren’t any warm alligator scales to roost on, cooters will perch on cypress knees or downed live oaks, proudly displaying their bright yellow stripes against a swamp green body and shell. Apart from walks down the La Chua trail and trips to Rawlings’ house, I’ve most often run into cooters while floating down the winding Ichetucknee, a river that connects aquifer springs pumping out the very water soaked up and filtered by Payne’s Prairie. Cooters are among the most common sights in the wetlands, often seen gnawing on fresh crabgrass shoots or looking for the perfect plot of soil to dig out their burrow. In my high school biology class, we watched baby cooters mature in a tank throughout the year.
My teacher best captured the attitudes of cooters with the statement, “They think they’re invincible because of that shell.” In this regard, cooters are much like the pioneers that settled and thrived in a sweltering, mosquito infested swampland without the comforts of modern technology.
During hard times in the early part of the twentieth century, cooters were common table fair for families of the Cracker South. In the tradition of living off of what is plentiful and local, households turned turtle meat into sustenance. Crackers–as many of the locals will call themselves–are descendants of old Irish settlers who were quickly fed up with laws and urbanization that followed the development of America. They retreated away from society into the uninhabitable depths of hot, humid, swampy Florida to raise cattle on vast stretches of untouched land like Payne’s Prairie. What followed was the creation of a contingent of boisterous and confident southerners with a collection of unique recipes that matched their daring attitude. Crackers used and often abused nature to make food and life bearable in sticky summers that stretch from March to November. Thankfully, this inclination to take from nature without concern for conservation is steadily being replaced by Crackers who have come to love and appreciate our delicate ecosystems. However, rumor has it that you can order a cup of cooter soup during certain parts of the year at the Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek. The restaurant, named after Rawlings’ most famous work, aims to preserve the essentials of Cracker cuisine often featured in her writing. I could never muster up enough courage to taste cooter during my adolescence, but I have heard more than my fair share of stories from rural old-timers who were raised with cooter on the dinner table. Often, cooter was served among other local specialties such as quail, possum, and swamp cabbage (sabal palm hearts).
These delicacies are now served with respect, as Crackers have infused local flora and fauna in their culinary grammar without endangering the endeared.
Perhaps the biggest symbol of the cooter’s presence in the idea of the Cracker South is the annual Great American Cooter Festival. Despite its attention seeking name, the festival highlights the pervasiveness of Florida cooters in the idea of the Cracker South. Hosted within 30 miles of Cross Creek in Inverness, Florida, the Cooter Festival aims to celebrate and preserve the influence of cooters on the Cracker people. Local restaurants dish up southern classics as pageants, live music, and a farmers market buzz in the background. Children bring their pet cooters hoping to take home the grand prize in the cooter races.
The word “cooter” is laughable in most areas of the country. But in the Cracker South, cooters link the present day with the cultures and foodways of the past. In a state that seems to want to distance itself from its pioneer history, the celebration and consumption of Florida cooters is a reminder of the plentiful beauty and richness found in surrounding liminal swamps and marshlands.
Samuel J. Resnick