By Barb Freda
Late afternoon sun streams through the Spanish moss hanging down from large trees on this property in Central Florida. It’s late October, and it almost feels like autumn does up north. The heat isn’t too intense, the humidity has gone and the foliage lining the banks of the nearby river is touched with fall colors of rust and red. A big splash as I wander, perhaps a bit too close, to the river reminds me: I’m in gator country. I pay a bit more attention.
These are the grounds surrounding The Yearling, a restaurant here for 60 years on the banks of Cross Creek in the town of Cross Creek (about 16 miles south of Gainesville), the inspiration for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ book by the same title. The peace of the place is palpable. Few cars drive by on this country road, and when I reach the bank of the creek itself, I find some comfortable chairs for watching the water move by. Several locals cast fishing lines into the waters, pulling fish in for their dinner. But some just toss the fish back, apparently fishing for the pleasure of letting time stand still for a moment.
And time certainly seems to stand still here at The Yearling. The signs for the restaurant look as though they may have been here when the place first opened as a bunkhouse for fishermen in the 1940s and as a restaurant in 1952. Dusty and faded, they only add to the charm of the single-story building.
A small crowd has gathered for the opening. We all look a little road weary, and I even recognize a group of 20-somethings who were visiting Cross Creek, Rawlings’ actual home (now a state park) just down the road a ways. We are all fans, it seems.
The Yearling Tour
Robert Blauer, the owner, greets me at the door. He’s ready for a quick tour of The Yearling Restaurant and some history before the dinner crowd really gets into full swing.
Blauer bought the property in 1994 after it had been closed for four years — not quite with the idea of running it himself, but after six years of not being able to sell it, he assumed the role of reluctant restaurateur and reopened the restaurant in January 2002. It already had plenty of “Golden Spoon Awards” from Florida Trend magazine, thanks in large part to Junior Jenkins, the cook who manned the stoves for years before Blauer became owner.
“When we came back in, it was just the way it was when it had been closed, even with baked potatoes still in the ovens (the potatoes were gone, but the foil shells were still there). They took all the good stuff,” he says wistfully. By good stuff he means some of the authentic Florida history that must have decorated these walls. “We’ve tried to re-create the feel.”
“When I knew I was reopening, I tried to get Junior back to the stoves.” Junior sounded like he was having none of it, and Blauer knew he had to open with or without the famed head cook. “Junior came back one hour before our grand opening. We had the menu, but no recipes. And Junior shows up,” he says with a chuckle. Some student reporters from nearby University of Florida in Gainesville rushed over to interview him. “He just told them, ‘I didn’t come here to talk, I came to cook.’ And he pretty much never missed a day of work after that.” Until he died, that is. Junior cooked one Sunday night and died on a Tuesday during the summer of 2007.
“He could cook anything. He cooked the old way. His great-grandparents worked for Ms. Rawlings.
Again, the memories of Junior’s kitchen prowess bring a smile to Blauer’s face. So who are the chefs in the kitchen now? “We don’t have chefs. They’re too much work. We have cooks.” The cooks do their best to pick up where Junior left off.
Dinner and Dessert at the Yearling
After our tour, we settle in for dinner in the original front room. It’s cozy and casual with wood paneling, a large fireplace and just enough room for Willie Green, a blues singer and guitarist, to set up. Willie is a regular here, and has been for many years, singing the blues, chatting with customers and signing a CD when diners can’t leave without taking some of his music with them. He even has his groupies, Willie Fanatics.
This being The Yearling and a Florida much the way it was decades ago, the Cross Creek Sampler seems the only way to go for starters. We get crisp fried green tomatoes, fried alligator, fried frogs’ legs and fried portabella mushrooms (perhaps not on Rawlings’ menu years ago, but surely mushrooms must have been there). The tomatoes are tart, the way a green tomato should be, perfectly fried (crispy) and they come with a choice of spicy remoulade, ranch dressing and honey mustard. We taste them all.
Not a big fan of gator, I’m happy that the sampler forced me to sample this back country staple. It’s better than any I’ve had, tender and mild. Maybe I’m not a convert, but I wouldn’t shy away from it either. As for the fried frogs’ legs, after years of dining in restaurants around the world, it took coming to this little back country spot for my first taste. Mild, meaty — an homage to real Cracker cooking.
I want to go for the Cross Creek Platter for my entrée, but it repeats some of the sampler appetizer, so instead I try the crab-stuffed grouper, which Blauer recommends and says is a popular choice. It’s a heaping portion of tender grouper and savory crab stuffing served with a perfectly cooked, crunchy hush puppy (as any good Southern meal should be served) and long-cooked, tender greens (you can’t come to a place like The Yearling and not get greens). Other entrees that come our way include the night’s special of beef stroganoff over noodles (tender beef in a creamy sauce) and fried shrimp with light breading, which lets plenty of fresh shrimp flavor shine through.
Of course, there is their signature dessert, sour orange pie, made in the style of a key lime pie but with sour orange juice. I like to think it’s a nod to Rawlings, whose property has a large orchard on it. It was hoped the orchard would provide a living for Rawlings while she wrote. (You can still wander through remnants of that orchard, where oranges still grow on trees that were likely there when Rawlings live on the property.) The pie comes decked with plenty of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate — set against the orange of the pie, it feels like Halloween, totally appropriate for our Oct. 31 visit. The pie itself is a success. Sweet and tart and rich.
I wander out, more than satisfied, into the twilight. The parking lot has filled since I entered a couple of hours ago. The bar in The Yearling is a welcoming spot within the restaurant, and it’s hopping with a crowd relaxing after a long workweek.
The Yearling Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge
County Road 325
Cross Creek, Florida
Thursday: Noon-9 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: Noon-10 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-8 p.m.
Prices: Entrees average $15 to $20, Appetizers $8-$10. Lunch averages $8 to $14.