Discover more from Tales From Topographic Kitchens
"“A prosthetic leg with a Willie Nelson bumper sticker washed ashore on the beach, which meant it was Florida" (Tim Dorsey)
Rewind to two weeks before Christmas 2000 and a pool-side bar in a motel at Estero Beach in Florida, the state that Chuck Wendig called America's hot, moist land-wang. I'm sitting next to a group of locals who are discussing hanging chads. Two of the loudest are carrying barely concealed guns. Down the road, there's a shop called Guns n Porn, a candy-pink stucco cinema showing The Grinch, and a few hours away via the 1-75, aka Alligator Alley, is Miami. We've covered quite a lot of the state already, and I am utterly baffled. I thought I was going somewhere vaguely familiar, like a visit to an aunt I hadn't seen in twenty years, but the family relationship was still there. With Florida, I had an illusion of a connection that had been fed by Disney, Lily Pulitzer dresses and Maybelline Great Lash Mascara in all their Floridian pink and green glory. As a teenager, I devoured Pat Booth's bonkbuster novels set in Palm Beach and watched Miami Vice. I'd made a key lime pie. Hell, I'd tasted Florida! I thought I would know it when I met it.
This state remains the most unfathomable place of all the places I have ever been to. It's eccentric, heat and bug-infested and 'swamped by incongruity and paradox,’ as Susan Orleans writes in The Orchid Thief. It's the land of hideously technicolour roadkill and piles of discarded trash, immaculately restored art deco neighbourhoods and the place where I got told off for smoking on the sidewalk by a man climbing out of an enormous, gas-guzzling boat of a car. It's sippy cups filled with bouncy strips of conch drenched in lime, guava-filled pastries and the piggy fug of the Cuban sandwiches at Luis Galindo. It has storms with leading edges sharply defined against the blue of the sea, which sit and brood for an age, then bowl in with all the force of a plank of wood to the head: it's the first and only time a raindrop has ever cut me.
As is my way, I've tried to get to know a place via its food writing. Here are some of my favourites, although I cannot offer any assurances that you'll have a better handle on Florida after reading them. I think that's cool though, don't you?
Obviously, immigrants from Cuba and countries in Central and South America have exerted their culinary influence, especially in the southern part of the state. Still, author Janis Owen focuses on her own genealogical lineage- that of the Florida Cracker. The term 'cracker' is often used as a pejorative, but Owen proudly reclaims it in her cookbook, The Cracker Kitchen, which novelist and southern luminary Pat Conroy endorses. Referring to her food as an American fusion culture, Owen traces its origins back to Elizabethan England and explores the influence of topography on diet and culinary practices. Cracker food reflects North and Central Florida's local larder, so there are recipes for hearts of palm, game, home-cured ham, tomato gravy and smoked mullet. Lane cake, chicken perloo, and scuppernong jelly reflect better-known southern culinary sensibilities but it's all home food, both high and low on the hog and utterly unpretentious. Owen is also a fiction writer, and I adored her novel. American Ghosts.
You might also enjoy this: An interview with Janis Owen in the St Augustine Press.
And this is about smoked mullet.
Back in 1993, a patient gave me a copy of Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. The lead character, Michael Tolliver, hails from Florida, the state home to thousands of acres of orange groves that supply much of the juice that graces breakfast tables across America. So John Birdsall's piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant's homophobic rants was especially pertinent because Tolliver fled the state's small-town prejudice and Christian conservatism. ending up in San Francisco. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State's official OJ sweetheart and appeared in many TV ads sponsored by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium. The boycott served as a test case for consumer power and served as a show of strength from emerging civil rights movements.
Also, by John Birchall, where can we find queer space after Pulse?
From the very first prickly pears harvested by Paleo-Indians more than twelve thousand years ago to the more recent Cuban influence, Florida's food is as diverse as its landscape. A Culinary History of Florida by Joy Sheffield Harris is a useful introduction for those wanting to know more. Read about swamp cabbage festivals and the introduction of oranges by the Spanish; the shift in food culture from the outdoor supermarket of the North, where hunting, fishing, and trapping put food on the table, to the south of the state where the Latina influence is marked. Then there's the mixture of Seminole, Southern, and Cracker cooking that marked the end of colonial food and the beginnings of new foodways, even an account of the path that led to the gilded age of the macaroon via the introduction of almonds to Florida. It's a fascinating American story. The recipes are fascinating: a prehistoric method for barbecue called weeds and fire; a prickly pear drizzle for meat and fish; classic boiled peanuts, fromajardis and mission stew; pigs, pone and that perloo again.
A link to Joy Sheffield Harris's website.
Winner of a Julia Child Award in 1993, Miami Spice by Stephen Raichlen is playful and bright, a real melting pot of a book filled with meals that reflect the region's abundant and inexpensive tropical produce. I love the recipe for The Old Sour, where the hottest and tiniest of peppers are melded with salt and key lime juice to make something so versatile it can be used as a marinade, in sauces, and to make a Bloody Maria. His cooking instructions are good, too, telling you what to look for at different prep stages.
I do love a Junior League cookbook, and this one, which dates back to 1961, is a favourite. The Gasparilla Cookbook: Florida West Coast Recipes comes from the Gasparilla Invasion festival held yearly in Tampa, which sees pirates invade the beaches. The pie recipes are major: Guava, Calamondin Pie, Heavenly Pie, Mystery Pie, Prize Peach, Sherry Chiffon, and Brandy Coffee. The food is of its time and is no less for that.
Only in Florida.