So one of the things I do – and one of the things I love to do, even though when I did my first one I kind of dreaded it – is talk to people about my travels across Florida and how the Guide to the Southernmost State is perhaps the best guidebook to Florida ever. Do NOT make the mistake of asking me a Florida-related question if you want a quick answer, and under no circumstances should you ask me a Florida question and then allow me to corner you on the street if you have somewhere you need to be. Ever. I love to talk about how I retraced the depression-era driving tours of the state.
Last night was no exception, except these weren’t hapless strangers I cornered on the street but an enthusiastic group of residents who live at Westminster Palms at the edge of Old Northeast. My topic? Eating your way across the panhandle, using the 1939 WPA Guide to the Southernmost State as, well, a guide. I called my talk Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas.
The great folks at Westminster partner with OLLI at Eckerd College to bring speakers to the Palms. One of the Palms staff prepared pulled pork sliders and key lime pie. I brought Ted Peters fish spread. At the end, even though technically they weren’t from the panhandle, I made the “class” sour orange margaritas. Best. Teacher. Ever.
If you want my recipe for sour orange margaritas, there’s a whole post on my food blog, Aphrodite’s Hearth. I’d give it to you here, but it would consume the whole post space with interesting-to-foodies-but-maybe-not-to-you facts about sour oranges, sour mix, sugar and– well, you get the idea.
I will say this about sour oranges: One does not simply saunter into a grocery store and purchase them. I had some juice in my fridge from a December OLLI trip to Hawthorne, where Chef Omar at Southern Charm made the OLLI class sour orange pie and gave me a few of his stash.
That juice made for a good start but Ben Tillett, the owner of The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia, totally saved the day. Fresh sour oranges are not standard in any store I’ve seen, even orange juice stands – they’re beyond specialty. Mr. Tillett went into his groves yesterday morning and picked all the sour oranges he had on hand. If you’ve never been to the Citrus Place, it’s the first left after the first exit as you head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. They have juice they squeeze on-premises, orange ice cream, Terra Ceia clams, and oranges and grapefruit from nearby Parrish and Odessa. I wrote about them in January 2010; read that Detours & Diversions piece here.
The whole talk made me realize how little many Floridians know about Florida’s food mores. We have a rich history with aquaculture but also agriculture and ranching, and none of that is new: Dating back before the Guide made its way into Florida homes, Floridians worked the land and waters. I can’t imagine living somewhere without readily-accessible seafood or local beef, but many of the people who attend my talks (not all) tell me they had no idea Florida had as much food production as it does.
What’s so cool about food in Florida is that the things we produce locally now are the same things we produced locally 500 years ago: Oysters, mullet, redfish, fruit… it’s all the same. We brought in citrus from Spain when we decided St. Augustine should be a thing, so even that’s hung around Florida since the European beginning. But the mullet and mussels and such? As long as people called Florida home, that’s what they ate, because that’s what Florida made. Which is kind of cool, when you think about things in terms of the Columbian exchange of foods between the new world and the old. Much of what we can readily get in Florida was here before the Europeans.
Well, OK, except for the sour orange margaritas. Those are totally new. I’m pretty sure the Calusa didn’t have triple sec.