“Much of this talk is about loss,” said Gary Mormino. “We have lost the links between where our food comes from, what it is, how we obtain and prepare it and how we eat it. We have become disconnected from the source of our food when Asian catfish and farmed salmon appear on the menus of restaurants in Apalachicola and Okeechobee!”
Speaking to the Estero Island Historic Society’s members and friends on January 25, thanks to a grant from the Florida Humanities Council, Gary Mormino took his audience back through time to explore iconic, original Florida foods.
A frequent contributor to the Tampa Bay Times and author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida, Gary Mormino has always been fascinated by food. He teaches a class in food history at the University of South Florida and is writing a book on Florida food-ways. “Cuisine is not created by international accords or the U.N.,” says Gary. “It evolves through new ingredients and techniques introduced by different groups.”
Gary’s 10 iconic Florida foods are:
Harvested by the local Calusa people long before settlers arrived to establish a commercial fishery, mullet was the “classic poor people’s food”: abundant, easy to net, and tasty when served smoked. Despite initial snobbery, mullet became popular as “Truman turkey” during meat shortages after World War II.
“We’ve loved certain species of fish to death,” lamented Gary, noting the decline in once-abundant cod and redfish. While grouper has become a well-known Florida food, it was shunned until the late 20th Century. Fish houses would not buy it, and diners preferred red snapper, pompano or kingfish.
Oysters are the oldest documented shellfish eaten by humans, depicted in art and writing for thousands of years. Middens left by the Calusa, and Turtle Island in Volusia County, were built up largely from oyster shells.
Until a ban on killing marine turtles came into law in 1962, green turtles were considered a delicacy. The Florida Keys produced and canned a famous green turtle soup. Turtle steaks were also in demand.
A staple food since pioneer days, corn was not just eaten as a vegetable but especially in corn bread or corn pone (made with eggs and milk). Cracklin bread is corn bread studded with bits of cracklings: pork skin with the fat rendered out. Georgia ice cream is buttermilk with a chunk of corn bread soaking in it.
“Barbacoa” was a favored meat-cooking technique among native people. An engraving from the late 1500’s near St. Augustine shows a native pair placing alligators, fish and four-legged critters on wooden slats over a fire. Today the best barbecue in the U.S. is said to be Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway, South Carolina, where whole, split hogs are slow-grilled for 16 hours.
Placed in the oven with a palmetto leaf draped over each loaf so bakers can tell when the bread is done by the color of the leaf, Cuban bread is “heavenly when fresh, and inedible the next day,” according to Gary Mormino.
Ybor City in the 1890s was a mixing pot of Cuban, Mexican and Spanish immigrants who each contributed their own touches to this beloved sandwich. Most immigrants were men who dined alone in taverns, and it was simple to combine local ingredients into a quick meal. A true Cuban sandwich features roast pork, roasted or boiled ham, salami (a bit controversial) and mustard. No lettuce or mayonnaise. Romanian Jewish immigrants later added the pickle.
Best known in the Tampa – St. Petersburg area, this hearty Spanish stew contains smoked ham, chorizo, onion, plenty of garlic, white beans and potatoes. It originates in the Galician region of Spain and is still a popular cold-weather dish.
Key lime pie
Its origins are disputed, but south Florida has a good claim to this delectable dessert. In the tropical heat, a pie that required no baking or perishable ingredients was an instant hit. Dr. Sylvester Graham in the 1880s created a sweet cracker that, crushed and mixed with melted butter, formed the crust. Key limes grew well on the thin soil of the Florida Keys, and when Borden produced canned milk – also available sweetened and condensed – the natural end product was key lime pie.
Florida towns and their foods
Gary Mormino cited certain towns renowned for their crops:
Clewiston – sugar cane
Dade City – kumquats
Hastings – potatoes
Homestead – avocado and mamey
Immokalee – tomatoes
LaBelle – swamp cabbage (heart of palm)
Plant City – strawberries
Ruskin – tomatoes
Sanford – celery
Volusia County – oysters
If you have an opinion on the food that best defines Florida, send in your suggestion! The Island Sand Paper will publish results in a future issue.
By Janet Sailian
Join the Estero Island Historic Society on Monday, February 11 at 7 p.m. for the next free, public presentation by Craig Pittman: “Oh, Florida!” To some people, it’s a paradise. To others, it’s a punchline” in the Community Room (3rd floor) of the FMB Public Library.
In this piquant presentation, Craig will recount some of the wilder stories from Florida’s history and culture, but also how Florida has affected life throughout the United States. Since 1998, Craig has covered environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. He’s the co-author of Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands.