It’s 70 F here in Wekiva Springs FL where JD and I have come to visit my dad. It’s a typical winter day, balmy and overcast. Out from the screened-in balcony, bare crepe myrtle branches stand motionless, holding their dried seeds upright. Ducks (two real, two fake) glide and bob in a pond that hosts a fountain, and live oaks and cabbage palms support swaths of Spanish moss. The landscaped yard is the pride and joy of the sunshine state. Here, in central Florida, it’s a relief to find that many of these pop-up neighborhoods, have maintained the live oak landscape, to a certain degree. Finding recognizable vegetables in the landscape is rare and they are often ornamental. My dad tells me that his neighbor is the one who planted the collard greens outside, in the manicured hedge.
Apparently, it was Ponce de Leon who introduced cattle and oranges into North America in 1513. Nearly half of Florida’s land is used for cattle and calf production. There are many Florida grown crops in season in January as the climate allows for an extensive growing season. Crops including avocados, strawberries, a wide variety of our favorite brassicas, potatoes, and, of course, oranges are what you’ll find at farm stands along the state and county highways . Though there are many farmer’s markets from here to my hometown of St. Augustine, where Ponce first landed with his European plants and animals, the grocery store, selling conventional produce, still reigns as the main source of food.
My dad informed us that he went grocery shopping before we arrived but didn’t know what he bought. He entertains JD with the anecdote of how my mother refused to send him grocery shopping anymore after the time he returned with mostly Ho-Hos, soda, Twizzlers, and chips. Fortunately, he’s become better at shopping and he should give himself more credit. We found spinach, peppers, mushrooms, sweet fruits, onions, and even olive oil; enough to make everyone a few wholesome meals. My people eat conventional meat and eggs and when JD and I are in Rome, we eat what’s available (meaning: what’s free). Do you know that you can find shelf-stable crab (with a c) that’s ready to eat? Sometimes, coming back to “earth” (from NorCal) makes a martian of me. “Earth” and “reality” are both things my family reminds me of on these trips. My idealist ways serve me well in my food service but I find the grounding I need when survey the way of life in the Southeast. I moved very far away to be close to the resources I love the most: clean air, mass environmental conscientiousness, and responsibly rendered, localized food systems. My family supports that because they too flock to what means most to them: close proximity to the ones they love and need. We learn a lot from each other’s priorities.
Despite years of passing criticism on Floridian food culture, it gets better each time I return. Not only do most menus feature a vegetarian item, they now feature an exciting and thoughtfully constructed one. I’ve seen quite a few house-made quinoa vegetable patties as a substitute for beef on burgers. Salads come in a few varieties and, almost always, at least one of them features kale. Branding food items “Local” is not as big of a trend out here as it is back in California, however, “Natural” appears in bold font across many menus and restaurant signs. I think of my own efforts to accomplish my extreme goals of practical sustainability and repeat my choice mantra: everything take a hundred f*%#ing years. It’s quite soothing especially when you add the deep breathing.