The platter arrives overflowing with local bounty—big, pink Gulf shrimp and dense, fleshy grouper—but my daughter and I reach for the unfamiliar first: fried frog legs. We glance at each other, at our jointed pieces of meat and bite. “Tastes like chicken,” we decree, because that’s how unfamiliar white meat always tastes. We bite again, and a more complex flavor profile emerges. They are a little gamey, a little briny, a little lighter in color and density than poultry.
I’m searching for Southwest Florida’s heritage foods, and Joanie’s Blue Crab Café in Ochopee, a lively outpost along Tamiami Trail on the Everglades’ western edge, is my first stop. Our region is an amalgamation of people and cuisines. Florida fare draws from the Deep South, with its sweet tea, okra, dumplings and fried delicacies. (We tried fried green tomatoes at Joanie’s, too) Our mingling with Caribbean neighbors yielded “Floribbean” cooking, reflecting a shared love of seafood and fresh produce. These are important cultural legacies, but I want to strip away the outside influences and explore the foods inherent to our region, like the swamp cabbage the Seminoles ate and non-Indigenous settlers adopted. Turns out, we bring quite a bit to the table.
“A lot of the men around Everglades City have airboats, and they’ll go out and catch fresh frogs,” says Debra Kennedy, Joanie’s manager and the granddaughter-in-law of its founder. “You are getting something true and authentic—right from here.” Fear not, squeamish eaters. If amphibians aren’t your thing, the region offers plenty more.
It’s apt that I begin my quest at a restaurant that references seafood, which has sustained the region for some 2,000 years, since the emergence of the mighty Calusa tribe. “I’m sorry you couldn’t try the blue crab,” Debra says. Maryland likes to lay claim to blue crab, but we can just as easily declare it our own. They are among the state’s top 10 highest-value seafoods. (Joanie’s purchases them from Everglades City-based crabbers.) Pink shrimp—loved for their snap and sweetness—are the state’s No. 1 catch, yielding 9 million pounds in 2021, with nearly 4 million originating in Lee County. (The fate of this year’s harvest is unclear due to Hurricane Ian’s devastation.)
But if John Lynch has his way, another fish will take centerstage: mullet. John and his best friend, Jesse Tincher, established Blue Dog Bar & Grill on Matlacha in 2014 to celebrate Pine Island’s fishing legacy, including mullet, once considered a local staple. The fish started disappearing from dinner plates a few decades ago after a state constitutional amendment banned the type of net commonly used to catch them. These days, many visitors and newcomers have never experienced mullet, or know it only as a baitfish. “Generations of families made a living catching and eating mullet on Pine Island,” John says. “We felt if we were gonna have a seafood restaurant on Pine Island, it had to be authentic. To be authentic, you have to have mullet.” I met John before the hurricane, when the restaurant was in full swing (Blue Dog was badly battered in the storm and will take a while to rebuild). During my visit, he hands me a sampler plate. Mullet is sultry and rich as a smoked dip, peppery and complex when rubbed and blackened. But I gravitate toward the fried fillet; the preparation allows the fish’s flavor to shine. Mullet is seafood’s equivalent of dark poultry meat—richer and more distinctly ‘fish’ flavored than snowy white grouper or snapper.
John isn’t alone in restoring mullet. Chanda Jamieson, of The Fisherman’s Daughter, smokes the mullet her dad and brother catch and sells the fillets, and hand-blended spreads, at farmers’ markets. The family was lucky; boats and property survived Ian. “One bright spot: We just went mullet fishing, and it’s the most mullet we’ve seen in forever,” she tells me about 10 days after the storm. “The same with the blue crabs and stone crabs. It’s a glimmer of hope.”
Mullet may have fallen from public grace, but stone crabs have risen to seafood royalty. “Stone crabs are sought after all over the world, but they are only caught right here,” says Kelly Kirk, owner of Kirk Fish Co. in Goodland. Some 40 percent of the 2.4 million pounds harvested annually come from Collier County, and 98 percent of the state’s catch stays in Florida, she says. “I can’t tell you how many people base their trips on whether stone crab season is open,” Kelly says; the season runs from mid-October to May. Crack open the claw, and the meat is sweet, reminiscent of lobster or shrimp. It’s also sustainable: Crabbers harvest the claws and return the crustaceans to the sea, where they regenerate new ones. “That crab will continue to feed us for eight or nine years,” she says.
Our region’s land is as bountiful as its waters. Citrus may be top of mind for Florida fruit, but the state’s biggest orange producer is central Polk County. Instead, I head to Pine Island to learn about a fruit Southwest Florida can claim: mangoes. “Probably the first mangoes growing in Pine Island were brought by pirates in the 1700s,” says Steve Cucura, co-owner of FruitScapes tree nursery and fruit market. “They likely came from Cuba. It’s thought that Gasparilla dropped them off, and some of the seedlings sprouted.”
After noticing these wild mangoes, settlers in the 1900s started growing more palatable varieties collected by Miami botanist David Fairchild. (The original turpentines were rather stringy.) Would-be mango farmers planted trees as far north as Tampa. Periodic freezes doomed most groves, but not those on Pine Island, buffered by temperature-regulating seawater. The island’s industry peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after which it suffered a few blows, including competition from Mexico and the housing boom, which enticed growers to replace mango groves with palm trees for new homeowners. Then, about 10 years ago, Gary Zill, a grower near Miami, released a slate of new varieties that injected the industry with new energy. The result of decades-long hybridization experiments, his mangoes had unique flavors and tantalizing names, like orange sherbet, piña colada and pineapple pleasure.
Prior to Ian, Steve tallied at least 100 varieties grown on the island and sold at least 40 varieties at his fruit market. I tasted one with overtones of sweet, lemon meringue and another, dubbed cotton candy, that was indeed the tropical fruit equivalent of spun sugar. Growers are nursing the groves back to health, and Steve intends to sell other types of produce, namely island-grown vegetables, until trees produce fruit again, likely in 2024.
I associate pineapples with Hawaii, but once, they were Southwest Florida fare. Dubbed the Queen of Marco, Tommie Barfield and her husband, James, started a pineapple plantation on the island in the early 1900s. She wasn’t alone in seeing the fruit’s promise: Around the turn of the 20th century, sprawling pineapple farms emerged in Caxambas, a village on Marco’s southern end. “Pineapples like the well-drained, sandy soils,” Austin Bell, Marco Island Historical Society’s curator tells me. Records from 1909 show South Florida produced 500,000 pineapples that year, with an estimated 10 percent coming from Caxambas. Then, nearly as suddenly as the pineapple industry boomed, it went bust. By 1917, imports, freezes, diseases and related factors led to the pineapple’s demise on Marco.
A few decades later, the fruit made a resurgence in Immokalee. “The farm my dad worked at had something like 400 acres out there,” Nick Batty, owner of Inyoni Organic Farm in North Naples, says. His father worked for the Dole Corporation, which, in the 1980s, grew citrus in Florida and wished to experiment with pineapple. The boom was short-lived: Following a devastating freeze in 1989, Dole pulled out of Florida, and Immokalee’s pineapple days ended. “It’s unfortunate because they were producing really nice quality fruit,” Nick says. He keeps the legacy alive at Inyoni with about 600 pineapple plants left from his father’s groves, though he harvests only about 50 of the fruits each year.
Wild-growing plants, the ones that sustained Florida’s native tribes, might nourish us, too—if we take the time to learn what’s growing in the woods. Let’s start with the sabal (or cabbage) palm, the state tree and the source of swamp cabbage. The name is rather unappealing, but chances are you’ve already sampled swamp cabbage’s cousin, hearts of palm, made from domesticated peach palm and canned in brine.
To honor Florida’s straight-from-the-woods version, LaBelle held the first Swamp Cabbage Festival in 1967 and still celebrates every February. “Traditionally, swamp cabbage is served in a stew or fried in a fritter,” Keith Daniels, a festival director says. It has little taste alone but takes on the flavor of whatever it simmers with—a little like tofu. “It was a staple food,” he explains, adding it’s not the kind of thing one ate for pleasure.
Next stop: Walker Farms in North Fort Myers. I’m greeted by Allen Walker, who has been producing local honey with his wife, Joyce, since 1968. Their honey reflects the nectar of native plants: black mangrove from Pine Island’s coastal forests, saw palmetto from nearby woodlands, wildflower from plants blooming along State Road 31, orange blossom from groves in Alva. “Everything is within 60 miles,” Allen says.
Allen offers me samples in the shop that fronts their production and storage facility. The orange blossom reminds me of citrus peel added to baked goods. The black mangrove honey is dark-hued with spicy undertones. His favorite—and mine—is the saw palmetto, neutral and versatile.
While Walker relies on native plants’ nectar, Rose O’Dell King seeks their salt. Florida’s mangroves excrete excess salt on the surface of their leaves. Rose, who owns Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm in North Fort Myers with her husband, Gary, began harvesting salt from local mangroves for the farm’s onsite restaurant, which is currently on sabbatical. “We rounded a corner and there it was—all these leaves twinkling in the sun,” she says of her first find. She takes a motorboat out into mangrove forests to look for salt-crusted leaves. The salt can be wiped off, without any damage to the leaves, and brushed into buckets of fresh water. Once home, she lets the debris settle, scoops the water into sheet pans and waits for evaporation to do its job, forming chunky crystals. The salt is distinct for its herbal hints, and Rose uses it as a finishing season for premium fish, beef and salad dishes. “You can taste the greenness of the mangrove,” she says.
To discover more wild-growing treasures, I turn to two local experts. Naples chef Don Splain forages in our backwoods and backyards to create unique, Southwest Floridian, catered menus. Meanwhile, Danielle Flood serves as communications manager for ECHO Global Farm, a North Fort Myers-based nonprofit that addresses world hunger and runs a test farm filled with edible plants, including some native to Florida.
We meet on separate occasions, but they offer similar answers to my questions, including this one: Can I eat the sea grapes growing in my backyard? Yes, they each assure me. “But it’s one of those things that needs to be cooked,” Don cautions. Freshly picked, the native Florida fruits are like unripe crabapples, edible but bitter; after a good simmering, they soften to a more palatable form. He sweetens the tart fruit and works it into sauces, jams and chutneys that pair well with seafood and pork. (An important caveat: You can’t pluck wild sea grapes off dunes and beaches as they are state-protected.)
I thought the American beautyberry in my backyard was strictly ornamental. These shrubs, native to the Southeast, produce clusters of bright, purplish berries with notes of lemongrass and citronella. “If you have a good palate, beautyberry tastes phenomenal,” Don says. “It’s very light. When I work with it, I’m working with its aromatics.” Danielle likes to make jam with her berries. “It’s mild but sweet,” she adds.
The two list many other native delicacies: cocoplums and mulberries; Seminole pumpkins, which Danielle uses interchangeably with butternut squash; and Everglades tomatoes, the wild cousins of domesticated tomatoes. The size of cherry tomatoes, Everglades tomatoes ripen into sweet bursts of flavor. They are easy to grow but difficult to find in commercial nurseries. ECHO sells seeds, and Don recommends searching online for backyard hobbyists willing to part with a plant.
Their mention of roselle catches my attention. A hibiscus relative introduced to South Florida from the Caribbean, it’s known as the Florida cranberry. I’m a native of Cape Cod—cranberry country—so I am a little skeptical when Danielle plucks a magenta-colored calyx and shows me how to peel its edible outer layers. I bite; it is refreshing and crisp, less intense than a cranberry, but pleasantly tart nonetheless. Once popular among subsets of Florida’s early settlers—including transplants from Jamaica, where it’s commonly brewed into a nutrient-packed drink—roselle never won popular appeal. Don hopes to change that. He’s asked a couple of area farmers to grow roselle and hopes to introduce locals to its versatility via teas, jams, sauces and salads.
In the wake of Ian, there is no better time to sample our native foods and support those who produce them. Chanda, of The Fisherman’s Daughter, reflects on families like hers that make a living by the sea: “Our islands, our fishing communities have been devastated. But fishermen are resilient. Southwest Florida is resilient. You keep going. There is no other option. That’s your family, your life. That’s part of your nature. You are trying to nourish the community around you,” she says. Let’s help them do just that.