14531 E. County Road 325
Cross Creek, FL
Homesick but it’s alright
Lochloosa is on my mind
She’s on my mind— “Lochloosa” by JJ Grey & Mofro
What’s on your mind when you think of Florida?
If it’s cars driving on the world’s most famous beach, 45 story high-rises filled with Jewish widows from Brooklyn, or Mickey Mouse, well, you should come down here to the shores of Lochloosa Lake.
If you do, you’ll understand why songwriter JJ Grey can’t help but feeling homesick for the place.
This is the Florida not of amusement parks, golf courses, and snow-fleeing Yankees, but rather of horse farms, fresh water springs, and winding country roads canopied by Spanish moss oak trees.
It’s a slow Southern landscape that’s inspired poets and writers from JJ Grey to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for her book “The Yearling.”
Almost all of Rawlings’ writings were based on the local animals, cuisine, and characters who lived among the orange groves here in Cross Creek. From preachers to moonshiners, the ‘cracker culture’ of 20th century North Florida was a never-ending source of inspiration for Rawlings.
“Half-wild backwoods country,” she called it.
I’m happy to say, not much has changed in Cross Creek since she died. You can still tour her home and orange grove.
And a stone’s throw from there, The Yearling restaurant is still serving up pretty much the same authentic cracker cuisine Rawlings loved to write about.
A ramshackle joint that’s been standing here beside County Road 325 for almost six decades, where else are you going to get yourself some fried cooter and frog legs?
The Yearling serves it all – venison, oysters, crabs, quail, alligator. And cooter.
Get your mind out of the gutter. Cooter is soft shell turtle, a once abundant local delicacy that’s getting harder to find around these parts. And apparently, when prepared by the right hands, it’s quite tasty.
The Yearling dining room is patrolled by waitresses wearing bright Yearling t-shirts with the motto “Eat Mo’ Cooter” and a friendly looking tortoise on the back.
The Yearling restaurant is cluttered with memorabilia from “The Yearling” book and movie. Old timey bottles and cans decorate the mantle above the fireplace.
Best of all is the sound track to this rustic Southern setting – Willie Green.
Willie sits in a chair in the middle of the dining room picking his guitar, blowing his harmonica, and singing old acoustic blues tunes. In between, he chats with the eclectic mix of locals and out-of-towners.
Hovering somewhere near the 80-year mark, Willie is a local blues legend. The real deal.
Just watching and listening to Willie you can tell he’s been more places and seen more stuff go down than even the most-traveled American traveler.
Old time Southern blues performed by a real life legend. An authentic rustic atmosphere. Shotgun on the mantle.
Unfortunately, the food and prices hold the Yearling down a notch.
First of all, they were out of cooter.
So I ordered the combo plate of frog legs, softshell crab, alligator, and catfish. And fried green tomatoes for an appetizer.
While tasty and enjoyable, all five items were fried in the same batter. No one comes to The Yearling for culinary creativity I guess.
The tomatoes were battered, fried, and served with ranch dressing. No remoulade.
Everything else was served with cocktail sauce.
Simple. Familiar. And just bit monotonous.
Hey, if you want creative Southern cooking, go to Asheville. If you want authentic cracker cuisine, come to Cross Creek.
It seemed a bit early to me for softshell crab season, but my waitress insisted they were fresh.
More batter than crab meat, these softshells weren’t going to make me forget about the Chesapeake Bay blue crabs anytime soon.
Although, big and meaty, the catfish needed a few shakes of hot sauce to rise above its bland batter.
The star of the plate was the gator – tender succulent chunks of fried reptile. I always find some sick pleasure in chowing down on an animal bigger and more dangerous than me. This tasty swamp creature didn’t disappoint.
If you’ve never had southern fried frog legs, The Yearling is a good place to try them. These appendages were pulled off some mighty large amphibians, producing a surprisingly generous portion of meat.
The texture and taste of swampy chicken wings, eating fried frog legs while listening to Willie Green’s low-down Southern blues is way more fun than riding Space Mountain.
The sides of coleslaw, hush puppies, and collard greens were pretty standard. Again, nothing to elevate them to shirt-buying accolades.
I was somewhat amused by the beer selection.
The chalkboard at the bar bragged about having over a dozen beers. Except it was the most ubiquitous twelve beers in America. Not one unusual or unique.
Of course, that’s not surprising considering the setting. If you’re looking for microbrews, don’t go to a traditional Southern restaurant in Florida. The Sunshine State has the worst beer variety of all fifty states.
So I ordered the most out-of-place beer on the list – Negra Modelo.
But the best part of the meal came at the very end. Sour orange pie.
This has to be one of the ten best desserts of all time.
Made from oranges picked fresh from the groves right here in Cross Creek, this is a powerfully sweet pie.
While having the look and texture of a key lime pie, sour orange pie is sweeter and less tart.
Drizzled with chocolate syrup and accompanied by whipped cream, this pie deserves celebrity status because every American deserves to try this at least once.
Man, I’m serious. Forget free healthcare – sour orange pie for all!
Unfortunately, my generosity waned considerably once I got the bill.
After throwing a five in Willie’s tip bucket, my evening was just over $60. Sixty big ones for some fried swamp creatures, two beers, a few fried tomatoes, and a slice of pie?
I mean, it’s not like you’re paying for the property taxes or overhead at this rustic shack in the woods.
I’m pretty sure they paid off the mortgage over the past six decades. Even poor Willie, rumor has it, only gets what comes out of his tip bucket at the end of the night.
So I’m not sure what’s with the Ruth’s Chris pricing.
But then again, as Willie would probably agree, cooter just ain’t that easy to get as it once was.
Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt, But I Didn’t Have Any Money Left.