Ste. Claire, Dana. (2006). Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press. 255 pp., ISBN: 978-0-8130-3028-9 (trade paperback). $19.95
I grew up in rural Virginia before moving to Texas in my teen years, so I heard the term “cracker” through media like television and movies, as well as in person?occasionally directed at me—but often toward others. The term was always used to refer to a white person and always used in a pejorative manner. I honestly never took offense. I reasoned at an early age that white folk have many words that can disparage people of color that we certainly deserved our own. During a recent visit to St. Augustine during a vacation in Florida, I noticed the term being used a little more liberally. There was even a business—a restaurant—named the Florida Cracker Cafe, which made me wonder instantly about the origin of the name for another, more famous restaurant: Cracker Barrel. It was in St. Augustine, while browsing the artifacts on display in the Visitor’s Center that I happened upon Dana Ste. Claire’s book, Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History. I had to know more.
Dana Ste. Claire is currently the director of the Heritage Tourist Department in St. Augustine, FL. At the time Cracker went to press, he was Curator of History at The Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach. As a professional archaeologist, he also served (or may still serve) as Chair of the Secretary of State’s Historic Preservation Advisory Council in Tallahassee. He’s also the author of True Natives: Florida’s First People, and his expertise in Florida cultures emerges effortlessly in Cracker.
My interest in Cracker as a culture, now sparked, I found Ste. Claire’s book to be both broad enough to not exclude the concept outside the borders of Florida, yet specific enough that I came away with a new understanding of a term not solely the pejorative I grew up with, but a valid culture worthy of study and appreciation.
Although he’s an archaeologist, Ste. Claire doesn’t spend much time on archaeological aspects of exploring Cracker culture. His primary focus is on its history, including several possible origins of the term “cracker,” and on providing an ethnographic perspective. There are, however, several pages of architectural diagrams, sketches, and photographs of Cracker houses, structures, and artifacts one might expect to find on a Cracker site.
Ste. Claire begins with chapters that set out to define “Cracker” as a term and to paint an outline of Cracker culture in Florida. He then steers his focus the culture itself, spotlighting “Life in the Backwoods,” material aspects of Cracker culture such as architecture and furnishings, and “Cracker Cuisine.” These chapters are supplanted by sidebars that take fascinating and informative dives into subjects of native plants and animal foods, moonshining, and a very informative interview with locals on all things corn. The final chapters of the book provide reference for the serious student of Cracker culture. A bibliography, a glossary of “Cracker” terms where you might learn that a “scrub chicken” is actually a gopher tortoise, a one-time Cracker delicacy that is now illegal to hunt since they’re a threatened or vulnerable species. There’s also a section of Cracker literature which includes some poetry, and a short chapter that lists locations for a self-guided tour of Cracker heritage sites and museums.
Ste. Claire does a fine job of organizing his research into the history of Cracker culture in Florida into a concise, easy to read, text. There’s not dumbing down of the material, yet he presents it in a way that isn’t wordy or over the top with academic jargon. The sidebars are many, but well-written and informative. Ste. Claire’s writing style is one that conveys his ideas without boring the reader. The lay-public as well as the academic will find Cracker an informative and entertaining read. For historic archaeologists working in the south, the book offers a context for which to create a baseline understanding of how people thrived with very little in the way of material goods. This isn’t a book that was just released—but it is one that will be a pleasure to read for anyone interested in local history for the southeast United States.
My one wish is that more emphasis would have been placed on archaeological remains and how Cracker culture shows up in excavated sites (or doesn’t show up due to the paucity of material goods when compared to other historic sites.
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By the way, Cracker Barrel was given its name in 1969 so that it had a “down home” and “country flair,” according to Dan Evins, the restaurant’s founder.