Preserving America's Food Traditions.
Rum: Rendezvous with history
First Published in the St. Augustine Record
Publication Date: 12/18/08
Rum. The very sound of the word most often conjures up images of tropical drinks with little pink umbrellas. Or swashbuckling pirates, I suppose. (I've always wanted to use the word "swashbuckling" in one of my articles and finally found a way. Who knew?!)
But rum is a versatile liquor with a rich, sometimes surprising history that goes well beyond anecdotes of Hemingway's favorite daiquiri on a muggy Havana afternoon. In fact, rum might actually come into its own in the winter months, far removed from the sultry breezes of summer. It's in this colder season that rum is featured in two of my favorite cocktails: the Hot Buttered Rum and Coquito, a Puerto Rican-style eggnog.
Rum was Colonial America's alcohol of choice, and with good reason -- the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the colonies was based on Caribbean sugar plantations, African slave labor and the end product of distilled molasses -- rum -- produced and consumed in the colonies and sold and traded in Europe. Demand for sugar and rum powered the slave trade and brought both fortune and misfortune to men in the New World. Much of New England's power and prosperity was based on their high-quality rum production (Rhode Island rum was even considered on par with gold as a currency at one point), and some historians even go as far as claiming that rum deserves some credit for inspiring the American Revolution because of resistance to the Sugar Act of 1764.
Indeed, George Washington was adamant that rum be served at his inauguration, a custom that would later be used by many "spirited" politicians looking to win close elections. Rum was such an influential product for such a long time that historian Charles A. Coloumbe even wrote a book on the subject, titled "Rum: The Epic Story of the Drink that Changed the World."
One cocktail that dates back to Colonial American times is the Hot Buttered Rum, a drink that combines butter, spices, sugar or molasses, rum and hot water, and will warm every corner of your body, even on the coldest winter's day. The aroma will also leave your kitchen smelling magical. The cocktail originated as a way to mellow out harsher rums of that time period, but it works just as well today with a number of premium rums.
Typically, aged (dark) rums are used in Hot Buttered Rums, but my favorite rum, 10 Cane, a light rum from Trinidad, is extremely well-suited as well because of its subtle vanilla and floral notes. Despite its rough and tumble origins, this is a drink that will be more successful with a premium rum, so splurge and go for the good stuff and you won't be disappointed.
Coquito is another traditional beverage that is commonly imbibed during the winter months, in particular around Christmas and New Year's. This eggnog-like drink has its roots on the island of Puerto Rico and is a celestial combination of coconut cream, milk, vanilla, egg yolks, condensed milk, evaporated milk, and spices.
The name coquito might originate from either one or two sources. The Spanish word for coconut is coco, and coquito could be a more affectionate take on the fruit's name, which is common on the island. Another derivation of the word might be the coqu, the beloved tree frog that resides in Puerto Rico's tropical forests and serves as the island's unofficial mascot. The frog produces a constant "coh-KEE" sound that inspired its name, and perhaps the creamy beverage borrows its moniker because it is equally as adored. Though the sound of drinking an amphibian is not appetizing, I have never seen a person deny themselves the pleasure of a second glass of coquito. Either way, I hope you will enjoy these winter beverages this season in the company of friends and family.
Following, you will find my own versions of these classic cocktails.
Hot Buttered Rum
1 stick of butter (room temperature)
3/4 c brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1 vanilla bean
4 whole cloves (crushed)
2 tbsp. wild honey
2 c boiling water
1/2 c "10 Cane" or other premium rum
cinnamon sticks (for garnish)
whipped cream (for garnish)
Directions: Combine soft butter, sugar, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, all spice, vanilla bean, cloves and honey in bowl with mixer. Refrigerate until solid. (Can be refrigerated for a week or more.)
Later: Divide butter mixture among four mugs or coffee cups. Add boiling water and rum, dividing evenly. Stir well until butter mixture is dissolved completely. Garnish with cinnamon stick and/or whipped cream. Serve hot.
2 cans cream of coconut
2 cans condensed milk
6 oz "10 Cane" or other premium rum
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1 vanilla bean or 1 tsp real vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
cinnamon sticks (for garnish)
Directions: Mix all ingredients in blender. Adjust ingredients according to taste. Garnish with cinnamon stick.
How We Really Eat
(First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 16 October 2008)
I've spent a fair amount of time browsing the cookbook aisles of bookstores searching for the latest tricks that master chefs employ in their kitchens, or simply looking for something new to make on my own. What I often find is a bookshelf lined with cookbooks that feature glossy photographs but are filled with useless, unnecessarily complicated recipes.
Deglaze this, parboil that.
Sometimes a straightforward recipe's simplicity is more rewarding than fine dining that requires "training your palate" or spending hundreds of dollars on fancy new equipment you may never use again. Gee, I am so glad I asked for an electric raclette maker for Christmas last year. Is garage sale season under way yet?
Recently, I discovered a cookbook series with a very populist theme -- no-fuss, authentic recipes that have been collected by two ladies, Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley, as they traveled across the country in search of America's uncataloged culinary heritage.
The Best of the Best State Cookbook Series documents some of each state's greatest offerings in one of the most proletarian ways I've ever seen. McKee and Moseley collected recipes from state fairs, service organizations, festivals, individuals, restaurants and group events, compiling a series of cookbooks brimming with honest food from the real people who cook it. That's not to say that you won't find some truly impressive recipes -- chilled strawberry soup, anyone?
But the heart of this volume is in the fact that the majority of the recipes are ones that any home cook will feel comfortable making and proud serving. The Florida edition is filled with recipes and interesting tidbits that capture the heart and soul of the diverse people and ingredients of the Sunshine State -- but why stop there? Buy your own copy at a bookstore or online and then collect the other 49 states' editions.
Here are two recipes from the Best of the Best of Florida Cookbook, courtesy of Quail Ridge Press (www.quailridge.com). The first is a recipe that pays tribute to South Florida's Caribbean influences, while the second, though it calls for canning, is a down-home treat that can be enjoyed chilled immediately, especially now in the dog days of our long summer.
Cheeca Lodge's Jamaican Seafood Soup
(From the Calypso Cafe)
2 ounces apple-smoked bacon, chopped
1/3 cup diced yellow onion
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced leek
2 tbsp. packed dark brown sugar
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 ounce Jamaican jerk seasoning
2 cups fish broth
5 fresh plum tomatoes, diced
1/2 bunch fresh tarragon, chopped
Salt to taste
Croutons, sliced scallions or yogurt for garnish
Cook bacon in a saucepan. Add onion, celery, and leek. Cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until vegetables are translucent.
Add sugar and cook 3 minutes over low heat. Add cayenne pepper and jerk seasoning. Cook 1 minute. Stir in broth and tomatoes. Simmer 30 minutes. Add tarragon and salt.
3 ounces shrimp, coarsely chopped
3 ounces snapper, mahi mahi, or grouper, coarsely chopped
3 ounces stone crab meat, coarsely chopped
6 tbsp. butter
Cook shrimp, snapper, and crabmeat in butter over low heat until done. Place in soup bowls. Top with hot Soup Base. Garnish with croutons, sliced scallions, or yogurt.
Yields 4 servings.
Watermelon Rind Pickles
(From Let's Talk Food from A to Z)
4 pounds watermelon rinds
2 quarts plus 1 pint water, divided
4 tbsp. coarse salt
2 quarts vinegar
4 1/2 cups sugar
2 tbsp. whole cloves
10 cinnamon sticks
Use rind of a firm, not overripe, watermelon and, before weighing it, trim off outer green skin and pink flesh. Cut rind into 1 inch cubes and soak 12 hours in 2 quarts of water mixed with salt. Drain, then cover with fresh water and cook for 10 minutes. Let stand overnight in cooking water. Drain.
Combine vinegar, remaining 1 pint of water, sugar, and spices tied loosely in cheesecloth. Add drained watermelon, and boil gently for 2 hours, or until syrup is fairly thick. Remove spice bag and pack rind into hot, sterilized jars; cover with spiced vinegar to within 1/4 inch of top. Seal immediately. Makes about 3 quarts.
Flavors of the Yucatan
(First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 18 September 2008)
I spent a couple of weeks this summer eating my way across the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It’s a rough life. The Yucatán is probably most celebrated as being home to Cancún and the Riviera Maya, as well as spectacular Mayan ruins. And while the white sand beaches and pyramids are indeed breathtaking, I was there for the food.
Mexico’s cuisine is much more varied and regional than many people give it credit for being. And Yucatecan cuisine is no exception—picture a cross between Mexican standards (tacos, enchiladas, etc.) and throw in a tropical twist (lots of pork, citrus marinades, and of course, habanero peppers). Influenced by the ancient cooking of the Maya, with borrowed ingredients from the Caribbean and beyond, and updated by new interpretations, Yucatecan cuisine is bold and yet familiar, exciting yet comforting.
Most of my time sampling the region’s extraordinary table was spent in Mérida, the charming cultural and political capital of the Yucatán. Its romantic plazas and picturesque colonial architecture compete for one’s attention amid the food stalls, markets, and eateries that propel their competing aromas and flavors into the streets, demanding each passerby give notice. Before exploring the region, I asked Chef David Sterling, an American who operates a highly regarded Yucatecan cooking school in Mérida and it considered the foremost expert on the region’s cuisine, for dining recommendations. His suggestions did not disappoint and we were treated to some of the city’s most authentic cochinita pibil (pit-roasted pig in an achiote sauce) and sopa de lima (chicken and lime soup), among other memorable dishes. Chef Sterling was generous enough to share two of his favorite recipes below. For more information regarding his cooking school or for more of Chef Sterling’s recipes, please visit www.los-dos.com.
(Recipes courtesy Chef David Sterling, Los Dos Cooking School, Mérida, Yucatán)
X'nipek: ZESTY TOMATO TABLE SALSA
• 6 Roma tomatoes, finely chopped, drained in strainer for 20 minutes
• 1 small white onion, charred in a comal or heavy skillet, and finely chopped
• 1 chile habanero, charred, cap removed and finely chopped
• 4 Tbs. (60ml) cilantro, finely chopped
• 1/4 cup (75ml) naranja agria juice (Also known as sour orange or Seville orange. Substitute: 2 parts lime juice, 1 part each orange juice and grapefruit juice)
• Pinch sea salt
STEP 1 COMBINE DRAINED TOMATOES, onion and chile in a bowl. Refrigerate. Immediately before serving, stir in juice, salt and chopped cilantro. Check for seasonings. Bring to room temperature before serving.
NOTE: You may also substitute lime juice for the naranja agria, but this version is more particularly Yucatecan.
Sikil P'aak: VEGETABLE DIP OF TOASTED PUMPKIN SEEKS, ROASTED TOMATOES AND
• 4 cups (500g) hulled green pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
• 1 green chile habanero, charred
• 3 medium Roma tomatoes, charred on a comal or heavy skillet
• 4 large cloves garlic, charred in a flame or on a comal or heavy skillet
• 1/4 cup (75ml) juice of naranja agria (Also known as sour orange or Seville orange. Substitute: 2 parts fresh lime juice, 1 part each fresh orange juice and grapefruit juice)
• 3/4 cup (200ml) chicken broth
• 1 cup (150g) white onion, minced
• 3 Tbs. (15g) cilantro, finely chopped
• 1/8 tsp. (.625ml) canela (Substitute: Mexican cinnamon)
• 1 tsp. (5ml) salt
STEP 1 IN A HEAVY SKILLET over high flame, lightly toast the pumpkin seeds. Toss regularly during the process. They should be pale brown when finished. Remove toasted seeds to a large bowl. Allow to cool.
STEP 2 PLACE SEEDS IN A FOOD PROCESSOR and grind. Continue until the seeds turn to a fine powder that sticks loosely to the sides of the processor bowl. Use a spatula to push the congealing powder back into the processor bowl. Place toasted ground seeds in a mixing bowl until ready to use.
STEP 3 REMOVE STEM, SEED AND DEVEIN THE HABANERO. Place chile, whole tomatoes with skin and garlic in a blender, along with the juice and broth. Pulse until coarsely blended but not puréed.
STEP 4 POUR THE TOMATO MIXTURE a bit at a time into the mixing bowl containing the ground seeds. Blend with a spatula until thoroughly incorporated. If necessary, add more of the tomato mixture, mixing, until you achieve the consistency of a dip – thick but not dry.
STEP 5 ADD ONIONS, CILANTRO, CANELA and salt to taste. Stir and check for seasonings.
STEP 6 PLACE DIP in a serving bowl. Garnish with a sprig of cilantro or a whole habanero if you wish. Serve with homemade totopos (crispy fried tortilla triangles.)
Summer News and Notes
(First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 21 August 2008)
Chicken and WHAT?
While visiting college friends recently in Washington, D.C., I stopped in for a meal at Marvin, a new restaurant in the up-and-coming U Street Corridor that once thrived as one of the nation's premier centers of African American culture and is now having fresh life breathed into it with new jazz clubs, galleries, boutiques and restaurants popping up everywhere.
What drew me to Marvin (which is named in honor of the late Soul singer Marvin Gaye) was the most interesting item on the menu: chicken and waffles. Lovers of soul food may be familiar with the whimsical dish that was popularized at Well's Supper Club restaurant in Harlem. According to tradition, people stumbling out of jazz clubs late at night were hungry but were tardy for dinner and too early for breakfast, so the cooks at Well's came up with chicken and waffles to satisfy both cravings. The dish was then taken cross-country to Los Angeles, where Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, which has a loyal following by celebrity fans, made the combination a mainstream American sensation. The dish sometimes consists of a waffle topped with chopped chicken meat and gravy, but by far, the most common preparation is fried chicken on a waffle.
The latter is the version you will find at Marvin, where it is expertly prepared and artfully arranged on a plate with a side of greens. I wasn't really sure what to expect from my initial bite, as this was my first time ordering the dish anywhere, but what I found was an extraordinary combination of complementary flavors and textures -- the savory, crispy chicken melding in my mouth with a warm maple syrup-topped morsel of buttered waffle. It was down-home goodness.
If you can't make it to Marvin, try making it at home the next time you aren't sure whether you've got a hankering for breakfast or something heavier -- it's really the best of both worlds.
2007 14th Street ,Washington, D.C.
It would be a rotten crime not to mention to you the gem of a pizzeria I discovered in the East Village of New York City this past June. It's called Una Pizza Napoletana, and that's exactly what it is. If you are looking for the most traditional Neapolitan pizza on this side of the pond, hotfoot it to this small, casual restaurant owned by Anthony Mangieri, a young pizzaiolo who spent time in Naples perfecting his craft. There are only four pizzas from which to choose -- each one wood fired and baked in a custom-made brick oven, but you are guaranteed to leave very happy no matter which you choose, as long as you get there early enough. The place closes down when they run out of fresh dough.
We ordered a Margherita and watched as Mangieri performed his magic in front of us, as he lovingly does with every single pizza ordered at his eatery, one by one. With a deft touch and the finest, freshest ingredients, he assembled our pizza and placed it in the oven as the wood hissed and flared, adding its own smoky, slightly charred personality to the masterpiece. We devoured it in a matter of seconds, praising its crisp yet chewy crust, all the while planning our next trip to New York City.
Una Pizza Napoletana
349 East 12th Street, New York, NY
The Great Cookie Caper
(First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 17 July, 2008)
Cookies are humble, comforting treats no kid (or kid at heart) can resist. We have Sixteenth Century colonists to thank for bringing cookies to America, though the term “cookie” did not appear until later, when the Dutch word koekje was Anglicized into “cookie.” Early colonial cookies included gingerbread and macaroons, but soon enough, all manner of ingredients, some New World and some Old, were being added to the mix. Today, such things as peanut butter and M & M’s are common ingredients found in the cookie aisle. Yet, the modern cookie, loaded with sugar and butter, did not appear until the 1800s when America began its love affair with these simple indulgences.
Though everyone seems to have their preferred type or recipe, perhaps no other cookie is as celebrated in our country as the chocolate chip version. In fact, it is estimated that half of all cookies baked in America today are chocolate chip cookies. Interestingly, the recipe for this cherished cookie came about by accident in 1933 when Ruth Wakefield, who owned the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, dropped chocolate morsels into her famous sugar cookie batter. The details of the origin of the chocolate chip cookie are unclear because there are two versions, one by the Nestlé Company (now the owner of the Toll House cookie recipe) and the Toll House Inn. In Nestlé’s version, Ms. Wakefield ran out of baker’s chocolate for her chocolate cookies and substituted broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate, hoping it would melt evenly into the batter. It didn’t, and what resulted was a cookie with chocolate “chips” that became so popular that even the soldiers stationed abroad became obsessed with them when their families sent them care packages filled with the cookies. As word of and demand for the cookies spread, its popularity was cemented. In the Toll House Inn’s version, semi-sweet chocolate dropped from a shelf and shattered in the sugar cookies’ mixing bowl, and not wanting to waste the batter, Ms. Wakefield, who was a well-regarded baker and already had her own cookbook at the time, baked and sold the accidental cookies to approving patrons, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Recently, I asked a number of friends to make the supreme sacrifice of participating with me in an unofficial blind taste-test of 24 locally baked cookies of all shapes, sizes, and types. We scoured several local shops, restaurants, and bakeries in search of the perfect cookie. I know, it’s a tough task, but somebody’s gotta do it. Though perfection can be unattainable, a few came pretty close. Here’s what we discovered:
Best Chocolate Chip Cookie:
If you are looking for a cookie loaded with deep, rich chocolate, look no further than Claude’s Chocolates. The artisanal chocolate shop on Hypolita Street in downtown St. Augustine has two types of cookies they bake, and true to their specialty, chocolate is the supreme star of both. There is certainly nothing plain about their chocolate chip cookie, which comes studded with their homemade semi-sweet chocolate. Try heating it slightly in the oven at home for a crispy, gooey cookie experience. But for true chocolate lovers, splurge and go for the double chocolate pecan cookie, a rich and decadent combination of semi-sweet chocolate dough and dark chocolate pieces with just enough pecans to give it a nutty, crunchy texture. This cookie, which reminded us of a crispy brownie, leaves you in a semi-conscious state of euphoria for hours.
Best Traditional Cookie:
Just around the corner from Claude’s Chocolates on St. George Street, the Bunnery serves up a number of old-fashioned cookies hot from their oven. We sampled rich and buttery pecan shortbread cookies, intensely flavored ginger cookies, crumbly peanut butter cookies, and simple sugar cookies. But the clear winner was the delicious oatmeal raisin cookie, which had a buttery flavor complimented with hints of vanilla and cinnamon and enough plump raisins and rolled oats to hold the cookie together. If you can’t decide on which cookie to sample, do like we did and buy one of each!
Best Original Combination Cookie:
Out at the beach, Café 11 bakes homemade cookies daily and surprises diners with a variety of interesting ingredient combinations. We fell in love with the chocolate chip-coconut-macadamia cookie which juxtaposed tradition (gooey chocolate chips) with laid-back coastal attitude (coconut flakes and macadamia nut pieces). This addictive cookie displayed everything we were looking for: soft texture with a crispy ridge and bottom—perfect for dipping in milk; rich, complimentary flavors that hit us with childhood nostalgia; and a balance of both lightness and substance on our fingers and in our mouths. If you are looking for a completely satisfying cookie experience, this is it.
Postcard from Panama
(First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 15 May 2008)
Greetings from paradise! It’s a rough life down here near the equator—all these pesky Panamanian waiters pushing piña coladas and deliciously fresh ceviche in our faces, all the while insisting we take it easy and nap in the afternoons. Don’t they know we’re on vacation?
After a few days of snorkeling and several uninterrupted hours of lounging in hammocks in the San Blas islands, we flew back to the mainland and drove west to the spectacular Chiriquí Highlands. We based ourselves in the town of Boquete, which is the epicenter of Panama’s coffee industry. The warm days, cool nights, volcanic soils, and rugged slopes of the mountains and cloud forests are ideal for producing some of the world’s best coffee. Some of Boquete’s coffee estates have won numerous awards for the high quality of their products. In addition, many of the coffee plantations in the area are also known for the wildlife they support, since a good number of them use only minimal applications of chemicals (if any) to ward off pests, preferring to use birds as a deterrent. We are staying at the lodge at Finca Lérida, which is home to hundreds of bird species, including the elusive Resplendent Quetzal. People travel from across the globe hoping to get a peak of a quetzal in the cloud forests above Boquete. We were lucky enough to spot four quetzals on our first hike alone, including a beautiful male, which is more brightly colored than the female and has a dazzling tail it uses to attract a mate. Finca Lérida is home to so many bird species that it is even suggested in Robert S. Ridgley’s A Guide to the Birds of Panama as a place not to be missed. But of course, the estate isn’t just a great place for bird lovers, it is also a top destination for those of us looking for an excellent cup of coffee and an intimate introduction to the daily workings of a traditional coffee plantation. Finca Lérida’s award winning coffees are roasted daily and can be sampled on site at their charming café.
While staying at Finca Lérida, we were treated to their unique version of Tres Leches, the popular Latin American cake that decadently combines whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk for an irresistible ending to any meal. In this adaptation, espresso is added to give unexpected depth and flavor to this delightfully engaging dessert. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have!
For more information about staying at or visiting the coffee estate, please visit www.fincalerida.com.
Tres Leches (Three Milks Cake)
(Courtesy of the Collins Family, Finca Lérida Coffee Estate, Boquete, Panama)
6 eggs, separated
2 cups sugar
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole milk
2 tsp. baking powder
3 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup espresso coffee
1 can Evaporated Milk
1 can Sweetened Condensed Milk
1 ½ cup whole milk
3 egg whites
1 cup sugar
3 cups water
1/4 cup of light corn syrup
For sponge cake: In mixing bowl, beat the egg whites at low speed first and then increase the speed to high until soft peaks form. Add the sugar gradually, letting it dissolve before adding more, and continue beating until stiff peak forms. Add the egg yolks one by one, beating well after each addition. Mix flour with baking powder and add to egg mixture, alternating with milk. Finally, add vanilla. Pour this batter in a large cake pan, greased and floured, and bake for 35 to 40 minutes at 350° or test for toothpick to come out clean.
While cake is baking, prepare the cream. Mix everything together in a blender and pour over the sponge cake immediately after baking.
For frosting: Place water, sugar and corn syrup in a saucepan and bring to a boil. In the meantime, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Add the hot syrup in a steady, slow stream and continue beating at high speed until all the syrup has been added. Beat until frosting is no longer warm.
For serving: Once the soaked sponge cake is at room temperature, cool in refrigerator. Once cold, spread the frosting and refrigerate. Serve chilled.
Nothing Says April Like Throwing a Fish
(First Published in the St. Augustine Record, 17 April 2008)
Last month’s Rhythm ‘N’ Ribs festival, an annual celebration of barbeque, the Blues, and everything else that’s good about the South, was again so hugely successful that it dawned on me that there is probably nothing better to bring people together than good food. Get a staunch Democrat and a fierce Republican in a room together and watch them tangle, but have them share a plate of pulled pork that was slow cooked all night long and all politics will be quickly forgotten as they help each other to seconds. Now that’s bipartisanship! Heck, I bet if people ate more peach pie together, we would have less armed conflicts in the world. Ok, that last bit might be a stretch, but seriously, who can feel angry when you are eating freshly baked pie, of all things? Even stuffy office meetings become instantly more tolerable when the boss buys a pizza or a dozen donuts.
So it’s no wonder that so many food festivals punctuate the calendar every year, and nowhere do people like to gather and share a meal together more than here in Dixie. It seems like south of the Mason-Dixon line people just can’t get their fill of church picnics, county fairs, and food socials all in the name of fellowship, good times, and commemorating our culinary heritage. It’s even said that it’s just about impossible to win a local election in most parts of the South without hosting a campaign barbeque! My favorite event in St. Augustine is the annual Great Chowder Debate, in which area restaurants compete for the title of best local chowder (Seafood, Minorcan red, and New England white are among the usual categories) with the money going to the Shriners organization. (I’m pretty partial to Kyle’s Seafood’s crab bisque and the blue crab and corn chowder from the South Beach Grill.)
It seems like everyone is getting in on the act these days. All over Florida, communities are celebrating their local foods with gusto, and boy can the Sunshine State throw a party. Fellsmere holds a Frog Leg Festival every January, while Tampa throws a Flan Fest in February. Folks in Plant City are treated to a strawberry festival in winter and a Pig Jam in November. That same month sees Bradenton’s citizenry enjoying the Taste of Manatee (the county, not the protected marine mammal!), while Pinellas County holds a Death by Chocolate festival in December (I’m sure it’s sweeter than it sounds!). People go wild at July’s Mangomania Tropical Fruit Fair in Pine
Island, let off some steam at Jacksonville’s Food Fight in June, and try not to offend each other at Delray Beach’s Garlic Fest in February. As you can see there is something for every kind of food lover imaginable.
But one particular food festival caught my eye recently: the Interstate Mullet Toss. What is a “Mullet Toss,” you might ask? It’s a spirited event held each April in Pensacola in which participants who pay the $15 entrance fee compete to see who can throw a one-pound fish the farthest. The bizarre contest is sponsored by the Flora-Bama Lounge, a bar whose property rests halfway in Alabama and halfway in Florida and bills itself as “The Last Great American Roadhouse.” Mullet, the much-maligned bottom-feeding creature (it’s the name of a bad haircut too) that is plentiful in Florida waters, is the only fish with a gizzard and some people believe that it has magical powers. In Mississippi, it is highly revered for saving the populace from starvation during the Civil War and many there call the smoked fish version “Biloxi Bacon.” Participants in the “Mullet Toss” throw the fish from Alabama
across the state line into Florida and the longest throws are rewarded with trophies, T-shirts, and general merriment. Animal activists, relax—the fish are already dead when being thrown and they are fed to birds afterwards. The registration fees are donated to local youth charities, so it’s all in the name of fun and service. Who knew playing with your food could be such a fine time and good for your community too?
The Interstate Mullet Toss
Held Every April,
(This year’s event is April 25-27, 2008)
For more information on the event please visit http://www.florabama.com/ or call (850) 492 0611.
Raw Food Turns Up the Heat
(First Published in Palm Coast Lifestyles, March 2008)
When I told a few friends I was going to dine at one of the local raw food restaurants, some of them replied with wonder. “So let’s get this straight—you’re going to pay someone not to cook your food?” I have to admit that the concept seemed a little odd to me the first time I heard about it, but the more I thought about it, the more it became obvious that the movement was really just a natural extension of vegetarianism. Several raw food restaurants had already sprung up in New York and L.A. a few years ago, but I wasn’t sure if Northeast Florida was quite ready to sink its teeth into the concept when the first eatery of its kind, The Present Moment Café in St. Augustine, opened last year. I consider myself pretty open-minded when it comes to trying new foods and my travels around the world have given me the opportunity to eat some things that might frighten most people—guinea pigs and alpaca meat in Perú, grub worms in South Africa, and larvae in Japan, among other things—and eating raw vegetables seemed fairly mundane in comparison. “I love salad,” I assured myself. “What’s the big deal?”
The concept of raw foodism is one which espouses the consumption of uncooked and unprocessed foods (primarily fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some unpasteurized dairy products, although some raw diets also feature raw fish, meats, and eggs) as the primary source of calories in an individual’s diet. The movement has become somewhat popular in recent years, even spawning a documentary (inspired by Morgan Spurlock’s award-winning film “Supersize Me”) called “Supercharge Me,” in which writer/director Jenna Norwood “goes raw” for 30 days and viewers witness her weight loss and physical makeover. There are many different schools within the raw food movement, some more strict than others. For example, vegan raw foodists eat no fish, meat, eggs, or dairy, while instinctive raw foodists will eat meat in addition to the foods of the vegan diet, but will usually avoid dairy products. Primal raw foodists favor fatty meats, vegetable juices, and dairy products, yet “fruitarians” include fruits, nuts, seeds, and sometimes sprouted grains and legumes in their diets.
Despite the variety of philosophies available to those interested in trying this culinary concept, there exists one critical principle that binds all raw foodists together. Namely, food must never be “cooked” beyond 120 degrees Fahrenheit (some even say 110 degrees Fahrenheit), though dehydration is a common way to process some foods into crackers or thin breads. In addition, raw foodists generally believe that the greater the proportion of raw food consumed in one’s diet, the greater the nutritional benefits one will receive. They hold that raw foods contain a more abundant number of enzymes and nutrients than cooked or processed foods, and that the enzymes found in raw foods are also more easily digested and used by the body than those in cooked or processed foods. Some of these claims have been disputed in recent studies, which point to the fact that digestive enzymes are very sensitive to pH levels and many raw foods are active at higher pH levels than those found in the stomach, perhaps making the digestion of raw foods more difficult on the body. Some critics also argue that humans’ teeth and jaws, which were originally designed to chew raw foods, have evolved toward a disposition more favorable to cooked foods. Raw foodists point to the high levels of dental malocclusion among societies that cook their foods as evidence that humans are predisposed to eating raw foods, but dentists counter that malocclusion is an inherited trait and therefore not necessarily related to diet. Finally, raw foodists assert that their diet offers an overall healthier approach to eating, weight loss, and sickness prevention, though these claims too have been disputed or unsubstantiated.
Undeterred by the cloud of scientific arguments in favor and against the raw food movement, I was ready to give it a try. My first stop was the aforementioned Present Moment Café, owned by Yvette Schindler, a dedicated raw foodist herself whose diet consists of approximately 80% raw food. Three years ago, Schindler was inspired by the book Natures First Law: The Raw Food Diet by David Wolfe to give raw food a try and she has never looked back, feeling healthier and more energetic, even less anxious and tense ever since, as if she “had just gone home.” She describes the book as “radical” and containing “powerful statements” about nutrition and health, and she credits the book and her new diet with helping her arthritis subside, strengthening her immune system (she hasn’t been sick in three years), improving the quality of her sleep, and brightening her overall outlook. “I sensed a profound transformation and I wanted to share it with my community,” Schindler told me. “This is a kitchen with a mission.” Her restaurant (no fish, meat, or dairy) emulates many cooked food dishes, such as burgers, tuna salad, and pasta, because that’s what she and her clients were raised on. “This is a restaurant—I can’t just sell salads. Sometimes I crave a good patty melt. I wanted a menu that reflected things my customers would want to eat, but in a healthier format,” she commented. “We’re just moving one step at a time toward a healthier model of eating.” She views the raw food movement as an eco-friendly one because it not a chef-driven cuisine, but rather one that nature designed. Though she was adamant that it was “not a religion, not a political statement, just an ancient way of eating,” she described the raw food concept as a “peace movement” because it was less in conflict with the Earth. “We’re trying to be as inclusive here as possible,” she insisted. “Sixty-percent of my customers are meat eaters. I just want them to leave here smiling and feeling a little bit healthier.”
The Present Moment Café has a hushed, yet relaxed atmosphere and is tastefully decorated with cheerful earth tones that set the mood. I started my meal with two delightful appetizers. The first, a serving of chunky salsa and “Holy guacamole,” gave me a good sense of what to expect that evening: witty-titled dishes featuring extremely fresh ingredients without many spices or added flavorings to distract from the vivid taste of the vegetables themselves. The salsa was bright and light, while the guacamole burst with avocado and a hint of garlic. We followed with the “Middle East Peace” hummus, an interesting and creamy blend of cashews rather than chickpeas, topped with a drizzle of mint oil, and accompanied by crudités and homemade corn chips. For the main course, I sampled the creative “Tacos of Life,” which consisted of a pine nut-chili and walnut puree carefully arranged in two romaine lettuce shells, topped with coconut sour cream and jalapeño vinaigrette, with another side of the salsa and guacamole. In addition, my table ordered the herbed nut loaf, which emulated a meat loaf over pasta. The loaf was made with sunflower seeds, walnuts and pine nuts, and was blended with parsley, red pepper, and herbs. The loaf’s consistency was indeed similar to a meatloaf, though the taste was obviously quite different. It rested on a bed of zucchini noodles and was served with a curious Alfredo sauce and pine nut parmesan, one which I was not too fond of. It was accompanied by a massaged kale salad, that while a little chewy, was complimentary to the nut loaf with its tanginess. We finished the meal with the highlight: a decadent chocolate marble torte with “drunken” bananas. The dense, rich torte was made with raw cacao and had a hint of chile powder, while the bananas had been poached in rum. Who knew dessert could be this healthy? Overall, I felt the portions were a tad small and the prices a bit high, but the quality and freshness of the produce shined brighter than the shadows cast by these drawbacks. I had to admit that I did feel lighter (both physically and in the wallet—my meal cost me about $30) and healthier when I left, but I wasn’t sure if it was just psychological or if the small portions of high-fiber foods were already at work inside my belly.
My next stop was the Almond Blossom Café in Flagler Beach, where Kim and David Hostetter, self-described “health ministers,” preside over a brightly lit eatery decorated with biblical passages along the walls. I visited the establishment on a Friday night and the place was packed with diners and hopping to the music of a soulful guitarist playing in the corner. The staff was friendly and knowledgeable, guiding me through the night’s offerings and even suggesting a few favorites that weren’t on the menu, such as the vegetable pizza with a dehydrated nut and vegetable crust. The portions were generally larger than the ones at the Present Moment Café and the prices more affordable, though the presentation and creativity more lacking. The Mediterranean sampler platter, the best thing we tried that evening, was a flavorful assortment of garlicky zucchini-based hummus with sun-dried tomatoes, grape leaves filled with ground almonds, pine nuts, and mint, a tasty and authentic tabouleh, and a sprouted-seed “cheese” spread, which tasted pretty similar to the real thing. Crispy dehydrated veggie chips accompanied the filling sides. In addition, we sampled the stuffed curry avocados, which were fresh but offered a very underwhelming taste of curry. The pizza also fell a little flat—it was more of a salad on a cracker than a pizza. Again, the quality of the produce was befitting of what you’d expect of a raw food place and I left spending about $20, including a glass of organic, sulfate-free wine. Not bad for such a unique experience.
As the evening progressed I couldn’t help but get a feeling that there was a definite religious undercurrent present at the Almond Blossom Café. Self-help books and videos abound in the small market found in the corner of the eatery, many with Christian leanings, and motivational speakers regularly give “wellness education lectures” here. A cross hangs between the men and women’s restrooms. But it was in talking with the Hostetters that I got the biggest dose of faith-based nutrition. When I asked David, a former Navy man, what inspired him to open the raw food restaurant with his wife, he talked about how he had gotten a flu shot while serving in the military and had been subsequently bed-ridden for 13 years. Desperate to find a remedy to his illness, a friend told him about a book modestly titled The Cure for All Diseases, by Hulda Regehr Clark, a Canadian nutritionist and independent researcher. The book claims that all diseases are caused by a combination of a parasite and a pollutant in the body. In order to rid the body of these unwanted guests, the book teaches readers how to make a device called a “zapper,” which is a small machine that uses a nine volt battery and copper cylinders to shock the parasites in one’s body with a light electric current . Emboldened by what he had read, David created his own zapper, adopted a healthier diet and physical regiment, and soon began feeling better. He now sells his own zappers at the restaurant for $75. He showed me his copy of The Cure for All Diseases, which he holds in high esteem, and shared excerpts with me. According to the book and David’s own testament, the zapper can cure everything from the common cold to cancer. AIDS patients will be as astounded as I was to learn that after only 18 minutes of utilizing the zapper, their malady will have disappeared.
Our enlightening conversation continued as Kim, author of a self-published health/spiritual guide called a Whole-E Health Lifestyle: Making the Transition to a Healthier You, One Sprout at a Time, which credits “the Creator” as giving the couple the directions for their lifestyle, expressed her interest in expanding the business to include a more comprehensive “wellness center” that would include exercise programs in addition to the raw food preparation and educational lectures that the restaurant already offered. When I inquired whether they would have yoga or other meditation classes, David was quick to express his opinion that they would be “satanic” if such practices did not emphasize Christianity. Kim added that she would try to hire mainly Christian employees at the new center because it would make for a more cohesive message. The Hostetters are evidently passionate believers in their version of the raw food lifestyle, something they proudly demonstrated to me.
Religious beliefs aside, the meals at both the secular Present Moment Café and the more zealous Almond Blossom Café were unique and worthwhile. Though the amount of health benefits one receives from eating raw foods might be debated by scientists, I did leave both meals feeling much lighter than I often do after eating at many other restaurants. Taking the lifestyle that may or may not come with the diet (depending with whom you speak) with a grain of salt might make the food itself more flavorful. It’s not a cuisine that will satisfy every customer, but it is certainly one that deserves a try. It might not change your life, but at the very least, might be the most illuminating meal you’ve had in a while.
Food for the Senses
(First Published by the St. Augustine Record, 21 Feb 2008)
February in Florida is a time when I start to stumble out of my winter stupor and my taste buds begin to come back to life. Not to disparage winter's bounty of greens and root vegetables, which are deeply satisfying in their own right, but as warmer days become more common and we're teased with spring's arrival, my taste buds tingle in anticipation of the fresh new flavors of the approaching season. I'm a guy who likes to engage all of my senses of taste with dishes that provoke the palate with their complexity of layered contrasting flavors, some of which are most enjoyable simply because you aren't expecting them.
Take, for example, my favorite way to enjoy ripe mangoes: I slice the juicy flesh into pieces, place them in a bowl and dust them with salt, cayenne pepper and a drizzle of lemon juice. It's a simple preparation that is common throughout the tropical world and will astonish you with the way it delivers sweet, sour, salty and spicy sensations in every bite.
Another easy snack that engages the taste receptors in your mouth is popcorn sprinkled with a mix of Indian curry powder, cinnamon and sugar. Trust me, it tastes much better than it might sound and will have your taste buds leaping up and down like they just won the Fantasy Five lotto.
In the past, scientists believed there were four taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But most experts now add a fifth to the list: umami, a Japanese word that means "delicious flavor" and is used to describe the sensation found in aged or fermented foods such as soy sauce, fish sauce, many cheeses, some meats and meat stocks, and other protein-rich items. In English, it is often referred to as "savoriness," and indeed may leave you saying "Ooh Mommy!" just as it is pronounced in Japanese.
One of my favorite meals to get my taste buds out of their late-Winter doldrums is a Vietnamese dish called pho ga, a hearty broth-based chicken noodle soup that I first sampled in Orlando's thriving ethnic neighborhood appropriately called "Little Vietnam," which is centered at the intersection of East Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue. (The area is also sometimes referred to as "ViMi" for Vietnam-Mills.) Orlando's Vietnamese community sprouted during the years when the conflict in Vietnam brought thousands of refugees to Central Florida, which offered a booming economy and a similar climate to the one back home. Though numerous Vietnamese eateries abound in the area, the best place to try the dish is at a restaurant called Pho 88, which specializes in the soup and is so authentic you may be the only non-Asian dining there. Traditionally, the soup is made with beef and simmered oxtails and is called pho bo, though the chicken version mentioned above is quite common as well. It is accompanied by a side plate full of cilantro and Thai Basil bouquets, lime wedges and spicy peppers such as jalapeos, which the eater can add to his or her bowl to enhance the experience according to their preference.
Vietnamese cuisine is unique in that it marries the native spices and ingredients of Southeast Asia with French techniques and flavors for a completely new direction in cooking. Many food historians believe it was, in fact, the French occupiers who may have inspired the dish with their beef stew called pot-au-feu, and that pho may simply be the Vietnamese corruption of the French word feu. The simplified version of pho ga that follows below is my homemade take on the dish and one that will celebrate your senses of taste all five of them in a symphony of textures, aromas and flavors. It will give your taste buds a reason to wake up, and that's something that makes a lot of "sense" indeed!
Homestyle Pho Ga
Adapted by Richard Villadniga
4 chicken thighs with skin and bone (preferably organic, free-ranged)
2 quarts of water
2 cups chicken broth
2 tsp salt
2 inches of fresh ginger, grated
1 stick of cinnamon
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
2 Star Anise pods
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 tsp garlic, finely chopped
About 1/3 lb of flat rice noodles (Can be found at Asian markets and some supermarkets)
1 jalapeo cut up into large pieces (seeds are optional)
2 limes, quartered
1 large bunch basil, preferably Thai
1 bunch cilantro or cilantro
1 package fresh bean sprouts
1 bunch green onions, chopped
Bring first 10 ingredients to a boil, stirring throughout. Reduce to high simmer for 30 minutes to an hour to develop a rich stock. The longer you wait, the better the stock. Adjust for saltiness if more is desired. When stock has formed to desired flavor and consistency, pull out the chicken thighs and let cool on a dish.
Next, remove the chicken skin and bones and discard. Chop the meat into strips and place back into the soup pot. Allow to simmer for another 5 minutes. Add the noodles to the soup, stir and return to a light boil. Carefully cook until the noodles are soft but not overdone, as they will become mushy. Ladle soup into bowls and serve at table with side dish of garnishes for each person to adjust the soup's flavor as desired.
From the Ground Up
(First Published by Palm Coast Lifestyles, Feb 2008)
Allen Whitham is a man who takes dirt seriously. He and his wife Mary are the owners of Bunnell Organics, a small citrus and persimmon farm in western Flagler County, where the couple grows some of the sweetest, juiciest all-natural fruits anywhere in northeastern Florida. “He’s always liked dirt since he was a child,” Mary informed me. “His mom told me about his first try as an entrepreneur. He found some soil as a little boy that he thought was so pretty, he tried to sell it to people,” she continued with a chuckle.
While that childhood story might be amusing to others, Allen still takes his soil today very solemnly. “Soil is the basis for all we grow here,” he explained as he and Mary gave me a tour of their impressive eight-acre plot. “And it all starts with our compost.” Allen meticulously researched composting methods, finding the very best ingredients to complement the Florida soil and the needs of their fruit trees. He imported basalt rock dust from Virginia , mounds of local mulch, even seaweed from off the coast of Maine, all to produce the darkest, richest compost to add to his soil. It takes nearly two years for the mulch to decompose before it can be added with the other ingredients, then another nine months or so for the compost to meld into the black gold that serves as the backbone of their garden. It’s a long process that requires patience and careful attention, but it’s all worth it to Allen. “We have a machine that breaks down our mulch into finer particles. I like to say that microorganisms have really small mouths, so the finer we grind the materials, the better the compost.” Allen also adds clay to the compost because he says it’s like “the glue that holds it all together.”
The Whithams try to maintain a sustainable farm with several low-impact practices, such as passive solar-panels that power a number of their machines and facilities. They utilize fresh water from their pond to irrigate the fruit trees because it carries less of the hard minerals that well-water contains. “Plus the algae from the pond adds nutrients to the soil,” noted Allen in an almost scholarly tone, one befitting of a biologist, but not really out of place here, the more I spoke with him. It didn’t take long to see how methodical and knowledgeable the couple is about every step of their agricultural practices. Though they are not organically certified (a process that has become prohibitively costly for many small family farms), they are “Certified Naturally Grown (CNG),” a certification process that requires monitoring and strict standards, without the high fees and prodigious amounts of paperwork that USDA Organic labeling mandates. The Certified Naturally Grown network now encompasses nearly 500 farmers in 47 states, according to their website. The Whithams were already doing many of the things that being Certified Naturally Grown necessitates, but they did it for their own health and well-being, rather than for commercial interests. Those came later. “We never use pesticides, but part of that philosophy is that we plant the right crop at the right time in the right location. I guess you could call that our integrated pest management!” Mary explained. “I’ve been working this garden now for about 20 years, and it’s just something I’ve always been passionate about—living a healthy lifestyle with minimal impact on the planet,” added Allen.
Though the main attraction of the farm is the citrus grove and the persimmon trees, the couple cultivates a number of crops for their own consumption in raised concrete beds Allen designed and built. The couple employs intensive agriculture and, of course, Allen’s fertile compost, and I witnessed broccoli, greens, onions, and other winter crops in full bloom, even during one of the coldest weeks of the year.
All of these carefully thought out plans seem natural, almost instinctive, for the couple. “Mary’s story about me selling dirt seems silly, but I guess I always knew I would end up working with dirt, one way or another. Working the land is restorative, it’s calming,” Allen remarked. “This place is more than a farm to us,” chimed in Mary. “It’s our hermitage, our refuge.”
Though this pastoral setting may transcend farming for the couple, for me it’s all about their marvelous citrus and persimmon crops. “I make the compost and Mary grows the fruit,” a proud Allen said, admiring his wife. I don’t know if it’s Allen’s studious approach to soil-building or Mary’s golden touch with fruit, but whatever the case may be, the two make quite a team and you can taste the proof. The trees in their grove bear a great variety of delicious fruits including satsumas, which are similar to tangerines, odd-shaped and puffy Ponkans (also know more casually as “zipperskins” for their easy peeling), juicy golden and red navels, fragrant Meyer lemons, amber sweet oranges, red grapefruit, and late-arriving Valencia oranges. In addition, their driveway is delightfully framed by two rows of persimmon trees that bear fruit in the autumn, a highly anticipated time of the year on the farm. In the past, the couple has sold some of their fruit to individuals, but they are looking to farm full time now and are searching for a group of customers to form a co-op or buy-in group to purchase their fruit. “While we are pretty content with the farming aspect of the operation, our primary goal is to eventually find some local folks that are interested in uniting as a group to buy our fruit,” Mary commented.
When I asked the couple to name their favorite fruits, Mary responded without hesitation that she loved her satsumas because they were easy to peel and eat, while Allen mulled it over and decided on the red navels because of their intense color and juiciness. “How can they be so red?” he asked himself. “They have got to be so jam-packed with nutrients!” It’s probably the soil, I though to myself.
I left the farm with a sack full of citrus and some dried persimmons the couple gave me to sample and as I drove home my car was filled with the loveliest of fragrances, as if I were being transported back to the grove where the breeze had been lifting the zest right from their peels. I couldn’t fight temptation, so I grabbed a Ponkan and easily peeled it without any resistance from the skin. The flesh was delicate, not fibrous at all, and the flavor was sweet, hinting of honey, while the juice exploded from within like a summer thunderstorm. It was pure citrus heaven. When I got home, I cut a few red navels in half and juiced them. There is something about juicing that I really like, something I can’t really explain other than to say that in a small way it helps me connect with nature. Maybe it’s the scent of the oranges, maybe it’s the spray of the juice, but mostly it’s a feeling that even though I didn’t necessarily grow the oranges, I still get to play a tiny part in making the final product. And what an incredible final product it was. In my glass I held a reddish-orange liquid, easy on the pulp, but heavy on flavor—floral and sweet to the last drop. I drank it down with such gusto that it was gone before I knew it. It was perhaps one of the finest glasses of orange juice I had ever drunk, but fortunately it won’t be my last. I still have a few more red navels in my sack for later.
If you are interested in forming a co-op to purchase their wonderful citrus and persimmons, contact the Withams at 386 437 5723.
New Year's Resolution: Eat Local
(First Published Jan. 23, 2007 in the St. Augustine Record)
Last year you gave up snack foods. Two years ago you joined the gym. And the year before that you promised yourself to be debt-free by year’s end. Each January, millions of Americans set goals for themselves, often focused on improving one’s health or finances or giving back to the community. This year, why not do all of the above by making a New Year’s resolution to increase the amount of food you consume from local sources? The idea of eating locally went mainstream in 2007 and shows no signs of letting up. Gourmet Magazine devoted its recent October issue to the movement, encouraging us to become a “nation of farmers,” while Barbra Kingsolver inspired readers with her highly-acclaimed book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which documented her year-long transformation from curious foodie to full-fledged farmer and locavore.
So what does it mean, exactly, to “eat locally?” Eating locally does not just entail supporting small, family-owned restaurants in your town. Let’s face it—while dining at a neighborhood restaurant beats heading to a chain, even local fast food franchises are technically locally-owned. Eating locally means going beyond that and seeking out local farms and farmer’s markets in your area, dining at restaurants that serve locally-grown foods, or shopping at businesses that distribute local meat, produce, and artisanal foods. It means taking direct action by going beyond simply being a consumer and becoming a producer of foods, even at the smallest of scales—starting your own backyard herb garden, for example.
Eating locally has several positive consequences for your health, your wallet, and your community. Let’s take the simple act of buying Hastings potatoes instead of their Idaho counterparts. By making the choice to purchase local potatoes, you will be financially supporting families in our neighboring communities, many of whom have farmed for generations but are now faced with the financial pressures of having to compete with cheaper markets overseas and soaring real estate values. You can meet some of these fine folks tilling the soil right here in our county and find out not only where your food comes from, but what’s in it as well. Everyone’s talking about lead in Chinese toys, but have you stopped to think about the mercury in your farm-raised seafood or the pesticides (many of them illegal here in the USA) found on your imported fruits and vegetables? By offering economic incentives to local farmers, you will be encouraging the preservation of one of our most treasured resources in St. John’s County—open space. Take a short drive out into the country and you’ll quickly notice the farmland that is being gobbled up by the land development interests. Each dollar you spend on locally-produced food is a vote to curb urban sprawl and reduce the county tax burden that new developments bring, all the while preserving the rural lands and wildlife corridors that are currently being threatened. In addition, buying locally is good for our environment because it reduces the transportation miles needed to deliver products. Imagine the fossil fuels saved and the reduction in emissions of greenhouse gasses if everyone in our county bought Hastings potatoes rather than Idaho Russets. It all adds up to a stronger community, a healthier understanding of our food supply, a cleaner environment, and a fresher potato.
Now you’re asking yourself, “He’s got a good point, but where do I start?” Eating locally is much easier than you think and doesn’t involve huge lifestyle changes. Simple acts have tremendous impacts when you add them all together. Start by shopping at places that feature local meats, seafood, or produce. The County Line Produce Stand in Hastings, in continuous operation for 42 years, sells only the freshest, seasonal produce available, most of it coming from the owners’ farm, located right behind the roadside landmark. The produce is so fresh you can still smell the dew from that morning’s pickings. Don’t have time to drive out to Hastings? Several establishments around St. Augustine, such as Curry Bros. Produce, Kyle’s Seafood, and Stewart’s Market, offer items that are usually proudly labeled as being produced in our community.
Sounds good, but you just have no time to cook? Head to Johnny’s Kitchen, where Johnny Barnes is leading the Hastings renaissance with his soulful home-cooking featuring mostly local produce, the majority of which he purchases daily at the County Line. Proving that a good restaurant can succeed in downtown Hastings, Johnny’s Kitchen has become the focal point of the rural community where farmers, sheriff deputies, retirees, and all others in between, gossip about local happenings and compete for a seat during Wednesday’s fried chicken rush. “I buy whatever I see is freshest and cook it the next morning. And when we run out, we’re done,” the charismatic Barnes told me recently.
If you are dining out elsewhere and want to eat locally, but you aren’t sure if anything on the menu was produced in our area, simply ask your server. If the eatery’s supply of local food is limited or non-existent, encourage the owner or chef to consider acquiring more of their ingredients from local sources. Take direct action by planting a garden. If you have no space at home, sign up for a 30X30 plot at the St. Johns County Agricultural Center’s community gardens space.
Finally, if you value the principles and benefits of eating locally, then please consider becoming a member of Slow Food First Coast, a local organization of which I am a founding member. One of the primary objectives of this organization is to create a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) project, a subscriber-based program in which members would receive a weekly installment of fresh, seasonal, local produce directly from a farmer in our area. If you are interested in this project or in becoming a member of Slow Food First Coast, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy New Year!
You Are What You Eat.
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