Friday, March 13, 2009
South Florida is a long way from Flagstaff, Arizona, where I’m writing now. I’ve crossed the bayou and the desert and now I’m up in the mountains watching powdery snow meander from the sky. It’s so hard to believe that such wildly varying climates and cultures—Cuban, Creole, Cowboy, Comanche—are all part of the same crazy patchwork of a country. Back at the Everglades International Hostel, heaps of fresh oranges and grapefruits, free for the juicing, greeted me from a little outdoor bar outside the kitchen. The Homestead area is home to dozens of farms, from 3-acre organic mom-and-pop joints to mammoth tomato-growing operations with hundreds of employees. After checking in I headed to the Farmer’s Market restaurant, just a few blocks away, for lunch. The restaurant is tucked among several huge produce warehouses—if you have eaten a tomato in January, I read, you have eaten a Homestead tomato. There were no tomatoes, however, on the lunch menu at the Market Restaurant. The menu was straight-up diner fare, using fish and produce from the market when applicable, and the other diners were warehouse workers on their lunch break. The waitress recommended the grouper fingers and they did not disappoint. Four fat chunks of succulent fried fish came with a pile of thick fries and plastic ramekins of tartar sauce and slaw. I’m usually not much of a French fry enthusiast but I was famished and ate every last bite on my plate, even the coleslaw.
On the way to the Everglades National Park the next morning, I passed sprawling tomato fields. Workers crouched in wide-brimmed straw hats and watering vehicles sent massive rainbows shooting into the air. Gorgeous, rosy red tomatoes were mysteriously spread along the side of the road. I swerved to avoid a pack of vultures devouring the first of three dog carcasses I would see that day. In the park, the variety of wildlife took my breath away. Impudent gators sunned themselves on the asphalt paths. Four species of heron and three kinds of egret waded through the marsh, and a cormorant with a big fish in its beak alighted on a mangrove branch. On the way back to the hostel I stopped at Robert Is Here, a flashy fruit stand a couple of miles from the park. I’d read the story of the stand—the owner started selling cucumbers as a boy in 1959, other local farms got in on the action, and now-middle-aged Robert continues to sell local fruit from the same location, with a full staff and a somewhat depressing little zoo out back. Today Robert specializes in unusual tropical fruits. Among the shiny pyramids of heirloom tomatoes and Florida avocados were such rarities as sapodilla (tastes like pear and brown sugar), canostel (“egg fruit”—tastes like custard) and Black Sapote (chocolate pudding fruit). I left with one of each, instructions to wait a week before eating any of the fruit, and a huge canostel milkshake that did indeed taste like a rich custard, with a hint of tangerine.
Back at the hostel I got comfortable reading in the screened-in gazebo among shisha-scented pillows, Moroccan draperies blowing in the breeze. That night I ate a satisfying, locally-sourced eggplant lasagna dinner in the backyard with new friends from all over the country and the world. The next morning, I began my journey up the gulf coast of Florida, with stops in Sarasota and Tallahassee, on my way to the Big Easy.
More to come tomorrow, if not sooner!