The Food of Florida: A Grand and Ongoing Experiment

Orange Blossoms, Crescent City, Florida (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

I didn’t know it then, but when I was much – heck, I’ll be really honest here and say a lot –  younger, I began participating in a grand social experiment, one that I understand more with each passing year. Given my nature, the experiment naturally involved food.

And that experiment began with a road trip, from Washington State to Florida. My father’s  job transported him, and us, to a new world, as it were.

Florida revealed an entirely different culinary paradigm to me, from the bagels with cream cheese and lox served at the snack bar in the student union to the sumptuous black bean soup conjured up at Tampa’s Columbia Restaurant and the weirdness of the Kapok Tree in St. Petersburg, from the platters of rosy-hued stone crabs served at fish shacks in Cedar Key to the rubbery Key Lime Pie served at any Denny’s from Gainesville to Miami.

A word before I go any further. These aforementioned dishes may seem commonplace to you, you who do your shopping at one of today’s ginormous supermarkets, with their globally inspired inventory, aisles marked “International” or even broken down into “Latin American” and “Indian” sections, where produce flown in from every port on the map cascades every where you look.

This state of affairs, and I must be emphatic here, has only been the norm for a relatively short time. Please remember that parsley, mushrooms, and cilantro – the fresh versions easy to take for granted now – could only be had in dried or canned form for a very long time. And those are just three examples that pop into my head right now.

Orange half (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

But I am getting ahead of myself here.

My food heritage at the time of said road trip could best be summed up as mid-century blah. Bland, resplendent with the goopy soupy casseroles invented by teams of Campbell’s Soup home economists and back-of-the-box recipes. The “villain” in this story was my mother, who inherited a love of bland. This indifferent cook threw meals together every night with the help of a can opener, meals that filled my stomach. True. I didn’t go to bed hungry, unlike many children then and now. Also true. I can’t cast blame here. With the privilege of hindsight, I marvel that she fed a family of six on a monthly budget of $320.48.

But my stomach, and my soul, craved something more.

As the years flew by, that elusive “something more” took form, thanks to the incredible mongrelized state of Florida. I mean nothing derogatory by that word. No.

For Florida, perhaps even more so than Hawaii, demonstrates what happens when – for whatever reason – human migration takes place. Especially in the kitchen. Mixing, borrowing, sharing, adapting, admiring, and making room at the table for everyone.

A grand social experiment that’s been going on ever since humans got up on their two legs and started walking.

And I am delighted to soon, once again, be a part of it.

SMOKED MULLET DIP

Makes about 2 cups

Crackers (preferably saltines or, if you’re a purist, whole wheat crackers)

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 chopped parsley

4 scallions (green onions), green part only

¼ t. (or to taste) Old Bay Seasoning

Salt to taste

1 pound smoked mullet, skinned, deboned, and flaked

Put the mayonnaise in a medium mixing bowl. Stir in parsley, onion, Old Bay, salt, and mullet. Mix until mullet is dispersed through the mayonnaise.

To serve, place crackers on a plate and mullet in a small crock. That’s it.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings House, Cross Creek, FL (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2017 C. Bertelsen

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4 comments

  • So true! I grew up in small town North Carolina and had never tasted a bagel (or cilantro or a foraged mushroom) until well into my adulthood. It’s funny to think of that now. Hooray for great food finds!!

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  • You’re welcome, Cindy. I know you’ll have some wonderful cooking posts coming up once you’re settled in your new home.

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  • And now you’re going back. I’m sure there will be new food adventures for you there, Cindy!
    I didn’t grow up with “bland,” but my husband did. My family and I introduced him to Sunday brunches with lox, bagels, and the rest–and to Indian, Chinese, and other foods.
    When I was a child living in Dallas, my dad used to bring back bagels, corned beef, rye bread, etc. from Philadelphia. :)

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