Good Eats

Greg Baker's Encyclopedia of Florida Food

By Jed PortmanNovember 11, 2014

If your knowledge of Florida food stops at stone crab and citrus, you’re not alone. Greg Baker, of the Refinery in Tampa, has been one of the first chefs in the state to celebrate a rich but  underexplored cuisine built by a diverse collection of characters from a crowded history: barbecue-loving natives, Spanish conquistadors, enslaved Africans, indentured servants from the Mediterranean, swamp-dwelling subsistence farmers, and many others. Next month, he’ll open Fodder & Shine, a restaurant inspired by the history of Florida food—especially the make-do staples of the so-called Florida Crackers, descendants of the state’s earliest white settlers. Expect to see some of these dishes and ingredients on the menu.

Datil Pepper
Photograph by Paullassiter / Wikimedia

Datil pepper: “It either came from Minorca, or it came up through the Caribbean. Either way, the Minorcans in St. Augustine own it now. It definitely has some sweetness, but it also has a very distinct funk. People around St. Augustine make hot sauce out of it. They either put chiles in vinegar, and remove vinegar as needed, or they make a ketchup-based hot sauce. Which is weird, but the sweetness of the ketchup really does balance the funk.”

Gaspachee: “You find it in the Panhandle, particularly around Pensacola. It’s kind of a cross between panzanella and gazpacho. You’ve got onions, peppers, tomatoes. Celery if you want. Garlic, spices. You soak hardtack overnight and toss that in, with mayonnaise.” 

Old Sour: “It’s a condiment used in the southern part of the state. It’s fermented key lime juice. They squeeze it, ferment it with a little bit of salt, and then use it like hot sauce.”

Smoked and fried mullet roe: “That’s an old-timey Cracker breakfast, which would usually go with scrambled eggs and grits. You take a sack of roe, toss it in a pan, and fry it up. So you get crunchy, briny roe. All those little eggs give it a texture kind of like cornmeal. Caviar cornmeal. I actually use a special technique that an old Cracker taught me. He made me promise I would never share it with anyone else, but the roe takes on more of a slow-poached egg yolk consistency, somewhere between custard and fudge.”

Smoked Florida mullet. Photograph by Greg and Michelle Baker

Smoked fish dip: “There’s always some kind of fatty smoked fish. Amberjack is widely used, and pompano and mahi are sometimes used, but mullet is the iconic thing. Always some kind of creamy base, whether that’s mayonnaise or boiled dressing, which tends to be a little tarter. There’s always going to be something like onion or scallion. Sometimes celery, depending on who’s making it. And crackers. Usually saltines. I’m going to serve it with hardtack at Fodder & Shine, because that was always around.”

Sofkee: “Sofkee is a native porridge of ground and fermented corn or rice. I discovered the rice version as a Boy Scout. Frankly, I thought of it as a form of hazing: starchy gruel with bacon chunks suspended in its strange viscousness. But trying fermented grits last fall made me reconsider. In the hands of caring cooks, it could be something of worth.”

Sour orange pie: “I believe this was a predecessor to Key Lime Pie, or at least went hand-in-hand with it. It has the same creamy texture. Florida citrus farmers graft Valencia orange branches onto Seville orange rootstock, because the Seville orange grows better in sandy soil. Seville oranges are—oh man, so sour. But they’re everywhere, as opposed to the key lime, which only grows in the southern part of the state. When I mention to older Crackers that I’m going to be making sour orange pie, their eyes light up. ‘I’ll be there.’”

A freshly harvested heart of palm. Photograph by Greg and Michelle Baker

Swamp cabbage: “Swamp cabbage is also called heart of palm. It’s the core of the sabal palmetto. There are two traditional ways to cook it. One is to make a stew. Take some bacon fat, sweat the cabbage in it, and then add butter and cream at the end, so it takes on an oyster stew flavor. The other one has Irish roots written all over it: You slice up some onions, render some bacon, and quickly flash-fry the cabbage.”

Tomato gravy and rice: “It’s a really simple dish, but it’s really fantastic. Take white bacon—salt pork—and render it down. You can throw a little onion or a little chile in there, maybe some datil pepper. Make a roux with some flour, and then add crushed up tomatoes, fresh or preserved. Let it cook til it thickens, and then serve it with rice.”