When its hot and humid in Florida and I am preparing to teach a few classes – my 50th year teaching in the Sunshine State – it is hard to write a serious column.
For some reason I always identified the summer with food. Spending my childhood summers in a Massachusetts beach resort, some of my best memories was of eating out: fried clams, lobster rolls, frappes (milk shakes), and salt water taffy. It got be to wonder what foods people should identify with Florida.
Cuisine in Florida obviously is shaped by the people who came to Florida from the native Indians to recent migrants from Latin America and Asia, the climate and terrain which shape what can be found or produced, and the lifestyle of Floridians. But mostly I think of living in a state where saltwater is on three sides.
Grouper sandwich on a Florida beach
A favorite Florida beach meal is a large grouper sandwich. My favorite place to have it is at Frenchy’s Rockaway Café for its porch sits on North Clearwater Beach with a view of sea gulls, waves, and beach volleyball games. I will confess that the original Frenchy’s started in 1981 and gained the reputation to build additional restaurants. But it lacks a beach location.
It isn’t a good beach restaurant or even a decent beach bar if it does not make a grouper sandwich. It is OK to have salmon and mahi mahi (dolphin – the fish), but a restaurant will be judged from Pensacola Beach to Key West for its grouper sandwich.
You don’t eat smoked mullet in New England. You don’t fish for mullet; you net mullet at night. You don’t bite into a mullet unless you want your mouth full of tiny bones; you scrape the meat out with a fork and it takes a little practice. Mullet is not for lazy diners.
The Smokehouse Filled With Mullet
For 65 years and five generations Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish in South Pasadena has been smoking mullet over red oak for six hours at an open-sided, rather dumpy place that doesn’t have a view of any water or beach and doesn’t take credit cards. The customers wouldn’t want it any other way.
Sure, Ted Peters cooks other seafood and serves drinks.
When I think of Florida and summer, I think of the Florida Keys and fried cracked conch. The native people down there are known as conchs and you shouldn’t question that. Even when you discover the conch or queen conch is a large snail that lives in a large, high spire glamorous shell. The people of the Caribbean brought this dish, breaded in light flour and deep fried into a golden delight.
The Florida Keys are lined with quaint little seafood places serving cracked conch. I like the Cracked Conch Café in Marathon for they put it on a nice bun. The atmosphere is typically family business with dogs on leases and a “snail-like pace.
Since I went to the Keys, I better journey down to Key West and pick a place for Key lime pies. Most commercial key lime pies outside Florida are made with Persian limes for the tiny key limes were almost destroyed in the 1930’s by a disease. Enough trees survived in people’s backyards and local cooks treat the fruit that makes the Official State Pie (2006) as royalty.
Real key lime pies use only condensed milk for their pies, key lime juice, and egg yolks. Most meringue toppings use egg whites. Pepe’s Café on Caroline Street is the oldest restaurant in Key West and have been making key lime pies there since 1909. Like many good restaurants in the Florida Keys, people don’t judge a place by its exterior but by the food inside.