Mullet bacon and coffee made from corn
To many people, the term “Cracker” is a racial slur, but down here in Florida, where things are often a bit, um, different, “Cracker” can be a badge of honor. Self-described “Florida Crackers” are people who were born and raised in the Sunshine State. The nickname is a nod to the state’s early settlers, called Crackers because they kept cattle in line with a crack of their whip. Back in their day, Florida was the frontier. Though most people associate cowboys with Texas, according to James M. Denham, a history professor and the director of the Lawton M. Chiles Jr. Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College, in the 1800s, Florida was just as bountiful with bovines.
“There were fast herds of wild cattle roaming everywhere,” Denham says. “All you had to do was round them up.”
Sounds straightforward, but it was hard work. The Florida Crackers rose before dawn and spent the day hunting for livestock in alligator- and mosquito-infested swamps and scrub forests. It was a dangerous gig. Even the scrawniest of cows weighed hundreds of pounds. Some also had horns. You had to be careful as it was often a few days’ trek to the nearest village with a doctor. In addition to herding cattle, most Crackers had farms to maintain, families to raise, and crops to harvest.
Tampa chef Greg Baker spent years researching Florida’s food history before opening Fodder and Shine, a restaurant highlighting Cracker cuisine. “They were hard workers,” he says. “A cup of coffee wouldn’t get you through a day of hard physical labor.”
So what kind of breakfast would?
Rodney Kite-Powell, Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center, stumbled upon a letter describing breakfast in Dana M. Ste. Claire's book Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History. In 1852, a Northerner staying at a boarding house just north of Tampa described breakfast as such:
“Salt-beef fried in tallow... a dish of hominy, cornbread made without salt, and coffee without milk.”
Let’s break that down.
Salted beef staved off spoilage
First, the salted beef. In the days before air conditioning and refrigeration, meat was often smoked, salted, or brined to keep from spoiling. This could result in something delicious or something more akin to overly salted beef jerky. Apparently our letter writer’s experience was more like the latter: “You can guess how much I ate,” she wrote.
Tallow was an animal fat used for cooking in the days before olive oil. The Northerner wasn’t a fan of this either, complaining that, “The tallow was as hard as candles ready for burning.”
Corn stood in for coffee
Hominy and cornbread were staples for Southerners with ample access to corn. As for the coffee, with no access to today’s electric grinders, the beans had to be beaten against a rock or ground in a can to get the flavor out. If coffee wasn’t available, Crackers drank a strong brew made from blackened corn. A dash of milk from a female herd member made the drink more palatable. Sweetener came from sorghum, a cheap sugar alternative Crackers could grow in their farms, says Denham.
For carbs, Crackers also turned to corn, because the crop grows easily in the South. If you were lucky, it wasn’t a long walk to the nearest mill. Otherwise you had to use a mortar and pestle to grind the year’s crop into a meal that could be used to make breads, cakes, and grits.
While our letter writer didn’t like her salted beef and candle-hard tallow, in a way she was lucky. In Cracker days, the protein on your breakfast plate depended on your location, and deer, turtles, and birds that are today on the endangered species list were all fair game.
Fish flooded the menu
Fish were also a breakfast staple and for Crackers along the Gulf of Mexico, that was mostly mullet. The fish could be consumed fresh or smoked long and low until the flesh formed a sort of bacon, says Denham.
Grunts, a fish Crackers accidentally caught when they were hunting for grouper, were ground in cornmeal and fried in bacon fat, according to Baker. The large prevalence of fish for breakfast surprised the chef and grossed him out a little.
“Salmon and lox is one thing, but catfish and grits? That’s just not something I want to eat first thing in the morning.”
Pork hogged the spotlight
But the primary protein for breakfast—and every other Cracker meal for that matter—was pork. In fact, you can thank Florida for the bacon on your breakfast plate today. According to Kite-Powell, it’s believed pigs were first brought to the New World by Hernando de Soto via Tampa Bay.
Pigs were easier to butcher and store than the cattle the Crackers herded, says Denham. And the meat didn’t spoil as easily as beef.
“Pigs are just a lot easier to work with,” he explains.
Florida's natural assets are ample
As tough as life was, Florida provided the Crackers with ample resources. The growing season was long and fresh produce was available throughout the year. There was ample access to fresh water and fish, and the land teemed with possums, rattlesnakes, and armadillo, all of which could wind up on the breakfast plate.
Breakfast, like every meal—heck, like the Crackers’ entire existence—was a matter of surviving on whatever resources were available.
“Today, we think of breakfast food as something fairly specific, but they wouldn’t have viewed it that way,” says Kite-Powell. “Breakfast was probably the biggest meal of the day.”
Lunch was usually leftover breakfast foods that had been kept warm in the Florida sun. Supper was served in the late afternoon. Then it was off to bed to wake up before sunrise and get cracking again.