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Florida Cuisine

Florida foodways vary with the section of the state; the stretch from Pensacola in the far northwestern panhandle to Key West in the extreme south is more than 800 miles long. Northern Florida fits in squarely with mainstream southern cuisine, with Creole and Cajun influences, south Florida and the Miami area have significant Cuban, Caribbean and South American influences, while the remote Florida keys to the south have their own food traditions. What all these regions have in common is access to seafood, both from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico; benefiting from a long growing season, Florida also produces a true wealth of inland fruits and vegetables.

In Florida, between October 15 and May 15, Stone Crabs are harvested just for their large claws; the crabs are not killed; thrown back into the water, they will grow new claws in about 18 months. At the famous Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Miami Beach (in existence since 1913) eating the stone crab legs is simplicity itself; the diner cracks open the shell, takes the meat out in clumps, dips it into Joe’s distinctive sauce, and enjoys. Florida seafood runs the gamut from gulf shrimp to mahi-mahi, from snapper, tuna, pompano and swordfish to clam, lobster and even alligator. The alligator, in fact, turns the usual food chain upside down; alligator attacks on humans are on the rise in the state.

Florida is the largest orange and citrus fruit producing state in the United States; citrus hence finds its way into many Florida foods, from cebiche (raw fish marinated in citrus juices), to avocado grapefruit salad. The state’s signature orange juice provides the base for sauces, marinades, marmalades, salad dressings, soups, cakes, and confections. Florida also produces mango, papaya, jackfruit, avocado, passion fruit, kumquat, dragon fruit, coconut and a wealth of other tropical fruits.

The Florida keys are a string of small islands stretching from just south of Miami in a long line down to the city of Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. This colorful tourist city is famous for having been the home to American writers Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey, and is well known for its fine restaurants. The keys are informally called the “Conch Republic” and are justly famous for conch fritters (the conch is an edible marine mollusk, a gastropod, whose distinctive shell can be used as a musical instrument). The small key limes that grow in the region are more tart and bitter than the larger Persian limes seen elsewhere; the key lime juice, mixed with egg, sugar and sweetened condensed milk, forms the basis for the key lime pies sold everywhere in the keys. The sweetened condensed milk used in the pie acts as a foil for the bitter key lime juice, but it is also a relic of an earlier age before refrigeration when canned milk served as a dietary staple of an isolated region without dairy farms.

Once a city largely associated with dull tourist food (although the chocolate-coated coconut patties were memorable), Miami has become a great culinary player among American cities over the last few decades. Caribbean and Latin American influence is strong; Cuban cooking has perhaps the greatest effect, but Nicaraguan, Haitian, Dominican, Colombian, Panamanian, Bahamian, Jamaican, and Puerto Rican strains all combine to make the most out of the wealth of tropical fruits and vegetables that are available year-round. Chinese, Vietnamese, Jewish and southern cuisine all fit into the stimulating Miami food mix described informally as “floribean.”

The food of Cuba is one of the great world cuisines; staple Cuban dishes like arróz con pollo (rice with chicken), rice and beans, and fried plantains (a banana-like vegetable) are common choices in south Florida. The cubano, or Cuban sandwich, is a specialty, available all over both Miami and Tampa in the distinctive cubano stands called loncherias. Using a chewy Cuban style bread (made with lard and designed to stand up to heat and pressure), the cubano is made with a filling of roast pork, ham, salami, cheese and a pickle. The cook presses the sandwich in a device called a plancha, allowing the flavors of the ingredients to meld together; the heat of the plancha also toasts the cubano’s crust. The medianoche (literally “midnight”) is another Cuban pressed sandwich that uses a sweet, egg-based bread. Cuban barbecued steak, pork and fish are highly prized. Many meats in Cuban cuisine, particularly those used in barbecue, are flavored with citrus marinades.

South Florida’s wealth of food options could include a Colombian or Venezuelan arepa (a thick flat corn cake) with any of a number of fillings, an empanada (stuffed savory pastry) with Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican or Mexican variations, a Jamaican meat pie or (screamingly hot) jerk chicken, a Jewish deli sandwich or knish (a savory, baked pie), the Brazilian barbecued churrasco, Louisiana gumbo, southern fried chicken, or even the unique international combination of Chinese and Cuban cuisine (developed by Chinese laborers in Cuba and widely exported to the United States). Miami’s trendy South Beach area, known for its plethora of historic Art Deco hotels, offers a typical mix of high-end American contemporary and fusion cooking, with a strong Asian influence.