On a drive from America's oldest town to one of its newest, two culinary explorers are amazed by the Florida panhandle
South Florida has never been our kind of place; wild poolside partying with fruity drinks just isn't our speed. But in the other Florida--the northern zone, the panhandle, where the deepest South meets the Gulf of Mexico--wild means scandalously delicious quail served at a Sunday night church supper. And we could spend a week touring the area for what we would pay to lounge around a Miami pool for a day.
To taste that quail--and to explore more of northern Florida's fascinating branch of Southern cuisine--we charted an east-to-west, coast-to-coast route across the panhandle. We would begin in St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited town in America, drive through the state's swampy, produce-rich backcountry, explore the Gulf Coast's oystering and fishing hamlets and finish in the resort town of Seaside, which was built in the early Eighties and made famous in 1998 by the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show.
We arrived in St. Augustine just ahead of Hurricane Floyd. But the city has survived worse threats than that in its 435 years. Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine as a Spanish colony in 1565, more than half a century before the Puritans stepped ashore at Plymouth. The city's Spanish character is stunningly preserved in its architecture, especially the fortresslike buildings of pale yellow stone, with peaked colonnades and terra-cotta-tiled roofs. The downtown area encircling the city plaza is a medieval maze of tight alleyways lined with brick cottages and handsome stucco storefronts, shaded by arching palms.
We were eager to determine how the Spanish influence would find its way into St. Augustine's cuisine and were thrilled to discover that it infuses even the brewpub food at the A1A Ale Works. We ate conch bollos, fritters similar to Low Country hush puppies but served with a mango ketchup that was fired by datil peppers, most likely brought to St. Augustine from Cuba or the West Indies by Spanish settlers. Our window table offered a view of Matanzas Bay,and we watched the wind whip up whitecaps on the water as Floyd approached.We admired the survivor spirit of the city, exemplified by Janice Graubard, owner of the Bayfront Westcott House, who trimmed her geraniums before bringing them in from the storm. Eventually, even the stalwarts who run the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, one of the city's oldest residences and now a museum, boarded their windows.
With the wind at our backs, we pressed inland to the fragrant pine woods and swampy rivers of the panhandle heartland, famed for the cuisine we'd wanted to experience since we were teenagers and read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's classic cookbook-cum-memoir Cross Creek Cookery. We weren't hell-bent on trying Rawlings's bear steak or cooter (turtle) stew, but we knew we'd find cooking marked by good country sense and abundant produce--the result of a nine-month growing season. We found it in White Springs, north of Cross Creek.
At the turn of the century, White Springs was a spa town booming with luxury hotels for travelers who sought out the mineral-rich, 72-degree waters. A fire razed the place in 1911, and White Springs never again achieved the grandeur of its heyday. But there are signs of renewal: a pretty main street of restored Victorian houses, wooden churches and a library recently installed in a former filling station. The engine of the revitalization is the Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center, a state park that includes an odd museum built to honor the composer Stephen Foster. The center's mission is to record and preserve native Florida folk arts: African-American strip quilting, pine-needle basketry, shape-note singing--and, yes, foodways, chronicled by the affable folklorist Jon Kay.
White Springs natives sweeten their coffee with syrup pressed in their own mills and made from their own sugar cane. They're passionate about the distinctions between gallberry, tupelo, sourwood and palmetto honeys. They're connoisseurs, but they shrug off their customs as simple habits: "I just do things the way my mama did," 90-year resident Nancy Morgan (Aunt Nancy to those who know her well) told us at a covered-dish supper at the center, prepared by the area's doyennes of country cooking.
The meal began with Mary Harris's hot corn bread speckled with pork cracklings and fluffy biscuits served with a palette of condiments: cane syrup, whole-fig preserves and mayhaw jelly made with the sweet, tart berries of the mayhaw tree. Mary dressed up her hog's head cheese, chitterlings and onions and liver pudding with amber-colored superhot pepper jelly. We were intrigued; the hot pepper jelly we know is cloyingly sweet and often tinted lime green. Ruby Shaw brought sausages and just-picked whiteacre peas steamed with shards of country ham. Helen Cribbs brought her chicken and dumplings--noodles, actually.
The supper had the air of a rollicking family dinner. C. E. "Woody" Woodard raved about Ruby's sausages and asked if it might be the same recipe his uncle took to the grave. Aunt Nancy groused about Mary's corn bread: "Your cracklings are tough; you ought to boil them before you bake." To which Mary replied, with a tight-lipped smile, "I like mine chewy." Aunt Nancy's son, Hilward, demonstrated a homemade quail trap--imagine a Lincoln Log pyramid--based on a design from western Africa.
We pushed toward Tallahassee and a site we consider to be hallowed territory: two acres at Florida A&M University's Viticulture Center, which has the country's greatest stocks of old Muscadine grapes. Thomas Jefferson once planted Muscadine cuttings, perhaps in hopes of rivaling his favorite French grapes. Like the North's Concord grapes, Muscadines are "foxy," or musky, with an easy-going flavor. Accompanied by the center director, Dr. Stephen Leong, we tasted varieties that ranged from pale yellow peewee marbles to magenta gob-stoppers; in addition to their honeysuckle radiance, we found nuances of orange, cinnamon, clove and coconut.
It was in St. Marks, about 20 miles south of the vineyards, that we caught our first glimpse of the gulf through a scrim of leggy pine trees, visited a restaurant called Posey's and ate the best oysters of our trip. Matt even found a pearl. We continued our drive along Route 98, which skirts the water; as pleasure boats gave way to oyster skiffs, we knew we were approaching Apalachicola.
Apalachicola is a dockside oystering and fishing hamlet with a rich cotton-trading and maritime history. In the morning, the sun rises over the silhouettes of hundreds of oystermen using sturdy four-foot-wide rakes, the only accepted harvesting tool, to haul their quarry into skiffs. In fact, 90 percent of the oysters consumed in Florida come from Apalachicola Bay and surrounding Franklin County.
One day, we did a marathon tasting at the local oyster shacks, which seemed intent on outdoing one another in the toppings department. Did we really want pepperoncini and Jack cheese on our oysters? No, but we discovered why some diners might: tasteless oysters. (Many Gulf Coast processors plump their oysters with water to reduce their saltiness.) Luckily, the Owl Cafe's chowder, made with perfectly briny clams, redeemed the day. And the warmly lit room, with its black-and-white photos of Apalachicola, was a reprieve from the shacks.
We were anxious to visit Seaside, the beachfront resort community designed to evoke Savannah, Charleston and Nantucket. Two Yale architects, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, created the town from scratch, with an architectural code that encouraged certain kinds of historical references: turrets, porches, picket fences, native vegetation. As we wandered the residential area, desolate as a musical set hours after curtain, we wondered where everyone was. We found the crowds in the Obe district, where Seaside's restaurants are clustered. Bud & Alley's ("a Florida restaurant") was bustling, a bistro more Mediterranean and Asian than Floridian. Our leek risotto and sesame-seared tuna were delicious, but we were straying from our mission. There was no "here" here. We were tuna out of water.
We wondered why a place like Seaside had to be invented just a few hours from White Springs, which has deep roots in the countryside, ensuring a supply of the good foods and community spirit that Seaside's creators envisioned. But, maybe we're too impatient. In 400 years, travelers might explore Seaside the way we did St. Augustine, looking for some form of nourishment in its arches and balustrades. Then again, we doubt it.
Matt and Ted Lee's Boiled Peanuts Catalogue is available at www.boiledpeanuts.com or by sending one dollar to Box 315, Charleston, South Carolina 29402.