Swamp Cabbage and Sunshine: Craziest-Ever Hearts of Palm Salad Sums Up Florida’s Food History

Hearts of palm salad rs
Hearts of Palm Salad (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Two baseball-sized scoops of green peanut-butter ice cream grabbed my attention right away. Resting on shredded iceberg lettuce, they were melting fast in the Florida heat. Beads of condensation dribbled across the white plate, like a pearl necklace ringing the throat of a marble Venus.

Ice cream and lettuce? What a crazy combination! What sat before me as I stuck my fork into a piece of lettuce, oozing with the odd green “dressing?” Spearing a square of canned pineapple and a sliver of canned peach at the same time, I suddenly remembered. I’d eaten this before.

The famous Cedar Key Island Hotel Hearts of Palm Salad, that’s what. Years and years ago, before snowbirds discovered this little pocket of paradise, my family used to drive the 60 miles from Gainesville to eat seafood served family-style, piled on large platters, the size of the one my grandmother plopped her 25-pound turkey on. If there was a heaven for shrimp and stone-crab-claw lovers, Cedar Key was it then.The best part? You could ask for more. And when you did, another steaming platter heaped as a high as the waitress’s shoulder appeared, all included in the original price. We also ate different versions of that weird salad topped with green peanut-butter ice cream.

Sadly, 10-inch plates replaced those platters not long afterwards and Cedar Key’s fish shacks lost their unique selling point. But the hearts of palm salad stayed the same, thankfully.

Invented at the Island Hotel in the late 1940s by Bessie Gibbs and her black cook, Catherine Johnson, also called “Big Buster,” the salad contains hearts of the cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), shredded lettuce, canned peach slices and pineapple chunks, bits of dates, candied ginger root, and the mint-green ice cream dressing. And in that mix of ingredients, I think it’s safe to say, I could see something of what makes Florida every bit as much a culinary crossroads as Hawaii, bursting to the seams with the adventurers, cutthroat businessmen, corrupt politicians, and quixotic characters immortalized in tomes about Florida’s history and in Carl Hiaasen’s novels.

The following human groups settled in Florida, either willingly or unwillingly:

Timucans (native to the region)
Creek Indians (who became the Seminoles, Everglades – “Seminole” really means runaway in the Creek language)
Spaniards (think St. Augustine, Ybor City)
British (throughout the state, many in the center)
Greeks (think Tarpon Springs, New Smyrna Beach)
Minorcans/Menorcans (indentured colonists who ended up in St. Augustine and New Smyrna Beach)
Italians (Ybor City, New Smyrna Beach)
Huguenots (Jacksonville – Fort Caroline)
Cubans (Ybor City, Miami)
Haitians (Miami)
Jews (Miami)
Conchs (British settlers who first went to Bahamas and ended up in Key West)
Africans (plantations, Florida a slave state -1845, first free black community in North America was Fort Mose)
Southeast Asia Indians

The key to the history of Florida lies in the building of railroads by men like Henry Flagler. One of the earliest railroads ran from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key; the first train arrived in Cedar Key on March 1, 1861. Most railroad workers were slaves. If you’ve ever traveled through the piney woods between Gainesville and Cedar Key, you will appreciate the sheer misery those workers endured as they hacked their way through swamps brimming with snakes and mosquitoes. Their work resulted in something not unlike the Panama Canal, at least in terms of making trade and passenger transport easier by bypassing the Florida Keys. The Civil War interrupted plans for using the railroad as a major international outlet, but Federal troops repaired it after the war.

Let’s get back to that salad. Called “swamp cabbage” by natives, the heart of palm requires a death – as so much of cuisine does – because a palm tree cannot live after the heart is removed, unlike cork trees that survive after their bark is removed. The government of Florida tries to protect the trees. Harvesters prefer the smaller trees, between 5 – 8 feet, for the heart is tenderer that way. You can buy canned heart of palm, but fresh is best. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings claimed heart of palm tasted like chestnuts, and others compare the taste to artichokes. I think the taste rests somewhere between the two, the soft crunchiness part of the attraction. What’s interesting that the salad, in its original form, contained no citrus. Remember that oranges and other citrus fueled the boom that led to accelerated economic growth in Florida, along with the railroads.

The Island Hotel, 1940s (Island Hotel, Cedar Key, FL)
Bessie Gibbs and her husband Loyal Gibbs (Island Hotel, Cedar Key)
Catherine Johnson (“Big Buster”) (Island Hotel Cedar Key, FL)

So Bessie Gibbs, with Catherine Johnson, came up with the idea for this salad, still served in many of the fish shacks strung along Dock Street today in Cedar Key. Bessie’s friend, Verona Watson, born in 1909, wrote a tiny cookbook – Cooking Up Memories of Cedar Key, printed in 1987, one of those little pamphlet-like books that only a few libraries possess – and said this about Bessie:

“Bessie was a Georgia girl (purely), and lived life as she pleased! She was an excellent cook, trained at Columbia University in New York. She was responsible for bringing the Arts Festival, which has become an annual affair, to Cedar Key; also the St. Clair Whitman Museum. Bessie was the Mayor of “The City” a number of years. Much of her helpfulness and kindnesses was hidden from the public – but, many of us remember … .” (p. 11)

Sometimes the smallest things speak the loudest. Listed on the menu as a simple salad, the hearts of palm salad turns out to be anything but that.

Island Hotel Hearts of Palm Salad

This is a close rendition of the real deal. Serves 4.

4 cups thinly sliced iceberg or green leaf lettuce
1 cup diced pineapple (preferably fresh)
1 cup sliced peaches
1/2 cup pitted dates
1 tablespoon minced candied ginger
2 cups thinly sliced hearts of palm, preferably fresh

Toss all ingredients together in a large bowl.

Ice Cream:
1 quart vanilla ice cream
¼ t. green food coloring
¼ cup mayonnaise
8 oz. crunchy peanut butter

Mix well quickly and refreeze.

To serve, place equal quantities of lettuce mixture on four plates. Top with two generous scoops of the ice cream.

Note: I thought later that perhaps it might be useful explore what might have inspired Bessie Gibbs to invent this. Certainly the idea of peanuts in dressing lettuce could be from an exposure to Gado-Gado. Mrs. Gibbs apparently spent time in New York City and thus the vast array of food habits found there. The use of canned fruit with lettuce was common at the time. Many salads were decorated with cream cheese, a common commercial product sought after by savvy cooks. The salad resembles a composed salad, and might have been taken in bits and pieces from The Edgewater Beach Hotel Salad Book, by Arthur Shircliffe (1926).

Short and select list of books about Florida’s cuisine and culinary history:

Allyn, Rube. How to Cook Your Catch

_____. Saltwater Florida Fishes

Carlton, Lowis. Famous Florida Recipes: 300 Years of Good Eating

Cedar Key Woman’s Club. Cedar Keys to Good Cooking

Claassen, Cheryl . “Shellfishing Season in the Prehistoric Southeastern United States.” American Antiquity  51(1): 21-37, 1986.

Colburn, David R. and Jane L. Landers, eds. The African-American Heritage of Florida

Dalhem, Ted. How to Smoke Seafood: Florida Cracker Style

Guste, Roy F. Gulf Coast Fish: A Cookbook

Hall, Maggi Smith. Flavors of St. Augustine: An Historic Cookbook

Hernandez Gonzmart, Adela and Pacheco, Ferdie. The Columbia Restaurant Spanish Cookbook

Jacobs, Eric and Sandra M. Jacobs. Florida Bounty: A Celebration of Florida Cuisine and Culture

Junior League of Tampa. The Gasparilla Cookbook

Lynch, Lonnie T. Mastering the Art of Florida Seafood

Malone, Barbara. Florida Seafood

Nickerson, Jane. Florida Cookbook

Raymond, Dorothy. Catch and Cook Shellfish

The Southern Fisheries Association. Southern Seafood Classics

Thompson, J. Kent. Remembering Florida’s Forgotten Coast

U.S. Department of the Interior. Florida Fish Recipes

Voltz, Jeanne and Caroline Stuart. The Florida Cookbook: From Gulf Coast Gumbo to Key Lime Pie

Watson, Verona. Cedar Key Cookin’

____. Cooking Up Memories of Cedar Key

Weinstein, Bruce. The Ultimate Shrimp Book

More about the cabbage palm:

Cabbage palmetto 

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

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