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GOURMET HIGHWAY: Christmas in Original Florida

By Doc Lawrence –

Cross Creek bookIn 1928 Pulitzer Prize winner Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings left New York for the wilds of Florida, lamenting that her “first Christmas at Cross Creek would break my heart,” but she stayed on to become one of America’s most acclaimed writers. With full knowledge she would miss the traditional celebrations up North, she settled into the small Cracker community of Cross Creek 15 miles south of Gainesville.

“It was unreasonable to be outraged by a temperature of 75 degrees, hot blazing sunshine and red birds singing lustily instead of Christmas carolers,” she wrote in “American Cookery” magazine in December 1942. “I had moved to the subtropics, and the lush life had become my life.”

The Florida Christmas observances are at times similar and different to those in other parts of the South. What fascinates me are the ways those close to their heritage continue what they love this time of year.

The restaurant view from Angelo's Restaurant in Panacea is one of the most breathtaking along the Gulf coast.

The restaurant view from Angelo’s Restaurant in Panacea is one of the most breathtaking along the Gulf coast.

Spring Creek Restaurant near Panacea in the Big Bend area of Florida has been owned and operated by Clay Lovel’s family for decades. Fresh seafood is de rigueur because they harvest from the briny waters literally in their backyard on Alligator Harbor which connect s to the Gulf of Mexico. The Lovel’s recently expanded into something that has attracted support from Florida officials: the farming of oysters, an almost miraculous farm to table operation that is working well.

Oysters have a prominent place in my family traditions this time of year. For every Christmas Eve as long as I can remember my family enjoyed oyster stew. With the bivalve under siege from all kinds of threats to the ocean waters, the Lovel family farming endeavor raises realistic hopes for safe and tasty oysters comparable to the success of clam farming in Cedar Key.

With White Springs' mayor Dr. Helen Miller looking on, hugs and gifts are exchanged at "Breakfast With Santa."

With White Springs’ mayor Dr. Helen Miller looking on, hugs and gifts are exchanged at “Breakfast With Santa.”

Angelo’s & Sons restaurant sits high above Ochlocknee Bay near Alligator Point not far from Spring Creek. One night there during college days I was introduced to my first cocktail, an Old Fashioned, and still favor it as a holiday aperitif. Angelo Petrandis’ father, George, constructed the original building in 1945 with lumber salvaged from the closing of a military base at St. Teresa Beach. The bar was cleverly positioned over the waters of Ochlocknee Bay in order to be located in a “wet” county. Few places offer a better view of Florida’s Gulf waters. And the Greek-American dishes are spectacular.

The first Tarzan movie was filmed at Florida’s Wakulla Springs, home to one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs. The historic Wakulla Springs Lodge was built in 1937 by Dupont family member Edward Ball and is listed on the Natural Register of Historic Places, designated as a National Natural Landmark. Before holiday dining in the historic lodge topped off with dessert and an old-fashioned sing-a-long is in the lobby beside  the Christmas tree, the boat cruise along the dark waters of the Wakulla River is mandatory, a memorable Florida Christmas tradition.

Farm raised oysters and plump and fresh at Spring Creek restaurant on Alligator Harbor.

Farm raised oysters and plump and fresh at Spring Creek restaurant on Alligator Harbor.

Dr. Helen Miller should be designated as a Christmas present for the city of White Springs. One of my favorite enlightened and visionary public officials in the country,  she is well along the way to revitalizing this charming city along the Suwannee River. White Springs is home to the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center, a Florida state park that presents the annual Festival of Lights, displaying more than five million lights throughout the park

Named a Top 20 Event in the southeast, visitors from the four corners enjoy holiday sights and sounds. Holiday light displays include majestic live oak trees decorated with thousands of lights, an antebellum museum dressed in full holiday splendor, a gingerbread village, a candy cane forest, Santa’s runway and much more. The centerpiece is the 200-foot tall Carillon Tower, which illuminates the night sky as holiday music rings from its bells.

An extra treat is joining in the community celebrations in White Springs, a fine example of generosity and inclusiveness, making Christmas in Florida so special.

The festival of lights at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs combines music with holiday visuals.

The festival of lights at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs combines music with holiday visuals.

In time, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings came to love the casual Florida backwoods Christmas and learned how to celebrate Christmas Florida-style. In “Christmas at Cross Creek,” she wrote that in Florida “the relation of man to nature continues . . . It is the mode to cook for Christmas dinner whatever the men bring down with their guns. That, too, is stable and good…The men have brought it in and the women have cooked it, and an old, good way of life is maintained.

“The beverage is likely to be Florida ‘corn,’ or moonshine liquor, with, for the more delicate or puritanical women, home-made Scuppernong or blackberry or elderberry wine,” Rawlings wrote.

Early on, the holidays in Florida offered a respite from labor and pressure as though relaxation, joy and rejuvenation were perfected here. This respect for things that are stable and cozy prevails in these places I love. Between farm-fresh Florida oysters, flutes of Champagne and the omnipresent Old Fashioned, I often recall a verse of scripture that says why this is a special time to be in Florida.” I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.” Ecclesiastes 3: 12-13.

F&M

Doc Lawrence is a veteran travel, food, wine and spirits journalist. Contact him at: editors@docsnews.com.

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