Gourmet Highway: Florida’s Culinary Diversity

By Doc Lawrence –

“Fried fish without hushpuppies are as a man without a
(Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings).

Florida dining embodies many cultures and includes the wines of the world. Chattahoochee’s Elizabeth Chason, a retired Florida newspaper editor, celebrated her 94th birthday with her son Tommy Chason, a distinguished Atlanta criminal defense lawyer at Tallahassee’s heralded restaurant, Chez Pierre. She was honored with a great meal that included Champagne. Dining traditions in Florida showcase regional delights like fresh mullet and commonly include many different and compatible wines. Conquistadors and
missionaries first brought the wines of Europe into America through Florida.

North Florida’s indigenous Cracker culture is a modern descendant of Spanish colonial rule. Cracker architecture in home design features magnificent porches. Cracker horses, sheep and cattle are quite common while Cracker cuisine, an inclusive mix of African and Native American influences with contributions from Spain, Cuba and the Deep South, has some pretty impressive practitioners.

A Cookbook From The Yearling Author

Dining at The Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Garden in Micanopy, Florida, featured dishes made from locally grown essentials prepared according to recipes from Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s 1942 masterpiece, Cross Creek Cookery. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling lived in nearby Cross Creek and her timeless cookbook preserved Cracker classics like softshell cooter soup, hushpuppies, swamp cabbage, rum omelets, Florida backwoods biscuits, roasted wild mallards and crab soup.

The Cross Creek dishes were wine friendly. Organic Bonterra wines were selected and the Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon paired perfectly with each course. The piece de resistance was “Mother’s Almond Cake” served with a chilled fruity Bantera rosé adding another dimension to my Florida dining experiences.

The lovely village of White Springs, immortalized in John Sayle’s movie Sunshine State, sits near the banks of the Suwannee River with the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail luring tourists who yearn for the real Florida experience. The culinary cultures of nearby Georgia and Florida blend perfectly: skillet-fried chicken, catfish, hushpuppies, cole slaw and banana pudding are staples. The historic Telford Inn, now being restored, once hosted celebrities like Teddy Roosevelt. John Vassar, a super promoter for White Springs, offers paddling on the Suwannee year round. Breakfast at Fat Belly’s restaurant kick starts a day of solid hiking or river paddling.

Big Bend Dining

Clay Lovel’s family has harvested fresh Gulf seafood at Shell Point, Florida for generations and his Spring Creek restaurant on Florida’s Big Bend coast specializes in Florida classics like fried mullet with hushpuppies. Wines with Florida seafood require the same simple procedure as wines with Cracker cooking. Just uncork the bottle, pour and enjoy. Disappointments at Shell Point are not in this equation. Chilled Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay make dining here even more memorable.

One of the country’s most heralded archeological restorations is Mission San Luis in Tallahassee. The exhibits and history confirms the roots of Florida’s modern cuisine and wine tradition. Researchers have been able to reconstruct not only the buildings that had the Spanish monks and soldiers living in harmony with the local Apalachee Indians, but the food they shared and the presence of abundant wines is documented. The wines for dinking and communion were from Spain and likely varietals like Tempranillo and Grenache, quite similar to today’s wines from Rioja.

Tallahassee, the birthplace of hushpuppies, was once home to Prince Charles Louis Napoleon Achilles Murat, a relative of Napoleon Bonaparte whose wife Catherine Willis Gray was the great-grandniece of George Washington. Chez Pierre sits on the land where the Count’s home once served guests French inspired cuisine prepared from local ingredients similar to those grown and eaten by the Apalachee and Spaniards. With an international reputation, Chez Pierre attracts dignitaries including a descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte who recently dined there and is expected back soon for an encore.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had wild mallards living on her farm – a local food source if there ever was one – available for her mallard dinners. Not surprisingly, she cooked with wine, added sherry to her roast chickens and served wines to guests. For her roasted mallards, she recommended “any good dry red wine, preferably Burgundy.”

Duck confit was my entrée choice at Chez Pierre. Staying true to Ms. Rawling’s protocol, the wine was Burgundy. Every bite confirmed the miracle of fresh Florida ingredients and cooks who revere tradition. The food and wines enjoyed in the modern South pay homage to ancestry.

This is a higher life where Old and New World food and wine heritage synthesize easily in the South and particularly in the Sunshine State with its unique blending of people and culinary diversity.

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