July 26, 2014

The Heart of the Matter

It all got started after my friend Carter, a fairly recent transplant from Wisconsin, happened to pass through LaBelle during its annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. He stuck around long enough to sample swamp cabbage in all its forms-boiled with ham hocks, fried in fritters, even chopped up raw and served atop peanut butter ice cream (much better than it sounds). Carter fell in love with the stuff. And he lamented the fact that, aside from $5 cans of Hearts of Palm that come from the Philippines and are saturated with salt and all sorts of suspicious preservatives, swamp cabbage is not a commodity that is easy to come by for those who want to cook it at home.

"I asked for it at Fresh Market and Publix," said Carter. "The way the produce managers looked at me, you'd have thought I was asking for polka-dot tomatoes."

"Heck," I told him. "You want swamp cabbage, all you have to do is go out and cut down a cabbage palm."

"You know how to do that?"

"Sure," I said.

Let the record show that there are times when a native Floridian should just keep his mouth shut. While it was true, technically, that I knew how to cut down a cabbage palm, it was much like other categories of expertise in which I'm vaguely familiar with the process-changing the oil in my car, successfully programming my VCR, natural childbirth-but have never actually done the deed. Still, as a native Floridian, a fourth-generation one, I'm just chauvinistic enough about it to believe that there are certain traits I come by naturally: an inability to pay money for fresh citrus, a total lack of curiosity about alligators, a predilection for passing up good deals on waterfront property. My forebears had chopped down cabbage palms. Surely it was in my genes.

And so it was that I found myself with Carter, traipsing around a chunk of land he owns, both of us bearing axes. We walked tall and proud, at one with the earth and its bounty, providers on the prowl. It was all very manly. Until I selected the target palm-about eight feet tall at its crown-and took a whack at it. The blade bounced off as if the trunk were molded from silly putty. I took another whack. Same thing. Carter had a go at it and succeeded in dislodging one of the fibrous, V-shaped boots. Progress. Except that it disrupted a sizable colony of cockroaches, several of which sought escape by the most direct route available-up the axe handle and onto Carter. Who says people from Wisconsin can't dance?

"Now you know why they call 'em palmetto bugs," I said.

"I would have accepted that at face value," said Carter. "Field experience wasn't necessary."

I whaled away at the trunk while Carter regrouped himself. I was making minor headway when Carter said, "So, does that make those palmetto wasps?" at the precise moment my axe struck the nest. The good news: Only one of the wasps got me. The bad news: Who knew a wasp could fly up a pair of shorts?

Ah, the noble cabbage palm, aka the sabal palmetto, our very own Florida state tree. An enigma wrapped inside a mystery wrapped inside layer after layer of impenetrability. An hour after we started chopping, the damn tree finally came down. Another half-hour of slicing and whittling, and we had the heart out. We chopped up the most tender part and it didn't quite fill a plastic Baggie.

"I figure after we boil it down with the ham hocks we'll each wind up with a good-sized spoonful," I said.

"You can have it all," said Carter. "You know, after I saw those cockroaches..."

A couple of weeks later, at Publix, I came across three cans of "Hearts of Palm" on the shelf. Five dollars a can. I bought 'em all, a bargain at twice the price. 

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