Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Journey Home Through My Taste Buds

Since coming to Florida I have done a lot of searching for two types of cuisine that are pretty hard to find. One is the stuff of my ancestors, southern food, and the other is authentic Florida regional cuisine.

For some reason, I thought Florida was in the south. Really, though, it is a place and state of mind all its very own. For example, I searched for traditional southern BBQ. It was darn hard to find. None of the biggest chain names are at all authentic. One of them served sauce and even vegetables so sweet that diabetes seemed the obvious end result of eating there often.

Sweet greens? Sweet black-eyed peas? I shudder. I can find grits in Orlando, but they are usually not cooked right. Most of the time, they are too runny. It is clear they are cooked by people who have no tradition of grits. Just as well, since I shouldn’t really eat them. I can also get fresh greens at the store, at least around holiday time, turnip greens and even collard greens. Yum! Best of all, there are fresh black-eyed peas available and pretty decent biscuits, excellent ham and fabulous tomatoes.

But it’s sort of like being able to assemble the pieces of my heritage, not finding it intact in a vital state. Truth be told, though, my recent travels through the south have shown me that its once distinctive and vibrant food heritage has been diluted even in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Alabama. You can find pockets of it, but you have to hunt for it. The great northern incursion has brought with it people who have no drawl and would not know a field pea from a crowder pea if you paid them to tell you.

The homogenization of our culture through technology is probably a good thing overall, but it does bring losses.

Similarly elusive here in Florida is true Florida cuisine. First, you’d have to define it, and there are a lot of claims. There is Cracker Cuisine, such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings practiced at Cross Creek that includes the classic swamp cabbage, actually made by combining the heart of the cabbage palm with varying ingredients but usually salt pork, salt and pepper, and then sometimes tomatoes, sugar or even cream. There are Cajun influences such as crawfish and gator, Caribbean island influences like jerk seasoning, and of course there is the official state pie, the Key Lime pie, even though Key limes are actually Persian in origin. Remember, true key lime pie is NEVER green, but always yellow in color like the flesh of the Key limes.

Probably among the most important and authentic is the seafood. In Florida, there is water, salt or fresh or both around us everywhere. I enjoyed smoked mullet last year on Pine Island, which is a mangrove island on the West Coast of the state that still retains a lot of old Florida charm. Mullet was a Florida staple and considered a fine breakfast food. There are also grouper, yummy just about any way you get it, and stone crab claws, which do not, in my humble opinion rival the Maryland Blue Crab or even the Dungeness Crab in flavor, but make up for it by their renewable nature. Then, of course, there is Florida citrus. It is a disappearing treasure with the pressures of development and the spread of citrus canker. If you have lived your whole life only tasting navel oranges from California, you have no idea how good a navel orange can be.

While it takes some traveling and searching to find these bits of Old Florida and original Florida cuisine, it is always a trip well-rewarded by the glimpse of the past and the taste of someone’s ancestral fare.

Bon appetit, everyone! As we head into the holidays when food is an important part of our rituals and traditions, take a journey home through your taste buds.

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