Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Swamp Food and Back Roads Florida - Notes from the Sunshine State

My family and I have been enjoying several days in north Florida over the holidays.  We have spent most of the time in Gainesville, but we have taken a few trips into the beautiful pine hammock ranch- and farmland.  This is the Florida landscape I love best.

A couple days before Christmas my son and I took a road trip into the scrub country of Sumter and Citrus counties southwest of Ocala and its chain of lakes and wetlands that are part of the Withlacoochee and the Chassahowitzka river basins.  This is real back roads country; two-lane blue highways bordered by live oak festooned with Spanish moss as they meander pass cattle and horse ranches.  This area has not changed much since I first visited it over forty years ago.  Cars (trucks more likely) are few and far between here and settlements, if they even have names, are mostly just wide spots in the road.  Roll down the windows and let the breezes flow.

We stopped in Floral City with its roughly 5,000 souls.  Situated on US Route 41, the town well deserves its name and is popular with bikers of the motorized and non-motorized variety.  We sat at the bar at the Shamrock Inn and shared a tasty back country sampler - cheese sticks, corn fritters, hush puppies, Cajun fries . . . all washed down with a couple mugs of cold beer.  I have eaten here a number of times over the years.  It is your typical small town pub and grill but run by a German couple who serve a variety of Southern, Irish and German dishes . . . great food and good service at a decent price.  Popular with locals and travelers alike, it is nothing fancy yet everyone is made to feel welcomed.  One of the reasons I keep coming back . . . and I wanted to share it with my son who had never been there before.

We continued up Route 41 to Inverness and Hernando, the former home of Major League hitting champ Ted Williams in his later years and the original site of a museum in his honor until it was relocated to Tropicana Field, in St. Petersburg.  From there it was only a few miles to where State Route 200 crosses the Withlachoochee River where it gently flows past Stumpknockers Restaurant.  We were in search of some genuine Florida swamp food and this place looked more than promising.  Neither of us had been here before and were not sure what to expect.  We were not disappointed!  Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, this quaint restaurant named after the spotted sunfish that lives among the cypress knees found along the banks of Florida’s rivers, has low ceilings and a rustic, dark wood interior and offers a great view of the river along with a fine selection of sea and swamp food . . . grouper, Gulf shrimp, sea scallops, frog legs, gator tail and steaks, and a variety of other traditional dishes.  We both opted for the gator steak which was lightly panned fried and served over yellow rice and smothered in a sweet and spicy slurry of onions, green peppers and tomatoes.  And what better way to wash it all down than with a couple pints of Stumpknocker Ale brewed up in Gainesville.  We had to loosen our belts for the ride back.

When visiting the Gainesville area, it has been our practice to take at least one ride over to Cross Creek located roughly 20 mile southeast beyond the Paynes Prairie preserve.  This tiny hamlet situated on a narrow isthmus between Orange Lake and Lake Laloosa was made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who came to the area in 1928 and bought a small farm and citrus grove.  It was here that she wrote most of her beloved novels.  As fate would have it, my first blog posting back in December 2008 was the result of a visit to the Rawlings farm.

Two days after Christmas my wife and I returned to Cross Creek after a drive through the pine hammock country east of Gainesville.  We had decided we would celebrate our 41st anniversary with a meal at The Yearling Restaurant, named in honor of Rawling’s celebrated 1929 novel.  We have been eating there over the past four decades, except for a few years when it was closed, and we are happy that it is open again and serving traditional north Florida cracker cuisine.  And I wanted at least one more helping of swamp food before we headed home to Maryland.  The menu is not extensive, but they serve what I came for. I feasted on a sampler of cracker offerings - frog legs, gator tail, catfish, soft-shell crab, fried green tomatoes and pickles, and hushpuppies.  Again I washed everything down with very cold Siren ale, another local beer brewed in Gainesville.

Despite the logo on the servers’ shirts urging one to “Eat Mo Cooter” (soft-shell freshwater turtle), The Yearling only rarely serves this delicious swamp delicacy. I was hoping I might get lucky this time but it was not to be.  I asked our server who told me the story I had heard before.  Cooter is still protected as an endangered species by US Fish and Wildlife, and well it should be.  It is probably endangered because it tastes so damned good!  Almost all privately farmed cooter currently harvested in Florida is sent to Japan where it demands a premium price.  As fine as this meal turned out, I was sorry I was not able to enjoy a fine piece of cooter pie.  I looked to the east and shook my fist.

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