Florida sun shines on conchs, key limes

Florida’s key lime pie dates to the early 19th century. / Photo by Fuzzy Gerdes

Gotta love a place that names itself after an edible mollusk.

In the Florida Keys, locals prize the meat of the conch so much that they have named themselves The Conch Republic. Conch is in fritters, chowder, ceviche. There are even conch “burgers,” deep-fried conch on a bun. (By the way, say “konk,” never “konsh,” or they’ll know you’re from out of town.) Bahamian immigrants popularized conch in the 1800s, and even the people themselves became known as “conchs.” Today, Key West residents of any origin proudly call themselves “conchs.”

Bahamians are just one of the many groups that give Florida a rich culinary culture. In Florida’s Panhandle, deeply Southern food prevails: fried mullet with hushpuppies, cheese grits, barbecued oysters and sweet tea. Greek and Italian immigrants arrived on the peninsula as early as the 18th century and today Florida menus feature “souvlaki” (kebabs), lasagna-like moussaka, lemon-and-oregano seasoned octopus and other Greek specialties. Italians became grocers, selling milk, eggs and Italian specialties such as olives and eggplant to cigar workers in Tampa.

Though southern Florida has people from many Latin cultures, it may be best known for its large and vibrant Cuban community. Miami is the place for black beans and rice, ropa vieja (shredded beef with tomato), vaca frita (shredded, fried beef) and hot pork sandwiches that soak the crusty roll with their juices.

Even if you’ve never had a thick, sweet café Cubano, chances are you’ve tasted Florida. The Sunshine State produces more than half of the country’s oranges and two-thirds of our grapefruit.

It’s also known for another citrus fruit, the golf ball-sized, bright yellow key lime. The tangy sweet key lime pie dates to the 19th century.

– Michele Kayal

Got a Florida memory? Favorite food? Tale to tell? Bone to pick? Please share it with us below.

5 Responses to Florida sun shines on conchs, key limes

  1. Susan 30A EATS December 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    We eat shrimp & grits, and grouper more than mullet in the Panhandle, 10 counties east of Apalachicola of where I have resided for the past 15 years. Love your concept and look forward to reading more updates. Check out Viva Florida celebrating 500 years of history! Pensacola, is rich with it!
    Have to travel 8 hours down South to get a good Cuban sandwich, but I can still make a great key-lime pie.
    Might want to check out Birmingham, alabama too, rich with Greek traditions, especially hot-dogs, and the Southern Foodways Alliance.

    • Mireille February 14, 2013 at 10:25 am #

      I don’t know that we eat grouper more than mullet in the panhandle. I’d say it depends on the table you pull up to. I’ve had my fair share of both growing up here and both my mother and grandmother (native Floridians) speak of their memories of fried mullet from when they were growing up.

      • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
        Michele Kayal February 15, 2013 at 11:28 am #

        Mireille, thanks for weighing in on mullet. Tell me a little about the difference between mullet and grouper — I know grouper is a flaky fish. Is mullet? What about preparations for each? Sorry to be ignorant — my fish all came from Long Island Sound growing up….
        p.s. please join our community. We’d love to have your voice — and your recipes. We’re launching a feature called “Community Kitchen,” where we profile community members and their family traditions and recipes. Would love to have you with us!

  2. Profile photo of Michele Kayal
    Michele Kayal December 13, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Susan, thanks for the heads up re: grouper. It was so much fun to research Florida. Such a rich food culture. I will definitely check out Viva Florida. Thanks for visiting, and look forward to getting to know you better!

  3. Joy Harris November 2, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    Your website is wonderful. I have been researching the history of Florida foods and started a blog about a year ago. Here is a part of my story:Our culinary history parallels our academic history with over 500 years of cultures blending their cooking styles to produce the most diverse cuisine in America, and the oldest. Italian, French, Creole, Cuban, Greek, Mexican, Minorcan and Caribbean, along with Southern, Soul and Cracker cooking is all a part of Florida’s culinary history. Historic restaurant dinners from the Gilded Age to roadside diners’ tattered menus encompass the food style changes of an emerging population.

    Fried Grouper and Key Lime Pie are gifts of love from the Sunshine State, but we also have fair food from the Florida State Fair in Tampa to the Strawberry Festival in Plant City and public school lunches to thank for some of the culinary history that changed the way we eat.

    RECIPE: My favorite way to prepare freshly caught grouper is to soak the fillets in buttermilk about an hour before dredging them in flour, salt and pepper, then dip in beaten eggs before frying in hot oil until golden.
    …Dining on prickly pear cactus in a restaurant just around the corner from the Miami circle, an archeological site in downtown Miami believed to be around 2000 years old, is surreal when you realize many of the dining options of Floridians at that time were the same as today, just prepared differently. The prickly pear was served as a gelee as part of a dessert featuring poached pears, the gelee was served in portions smaller than an eraser on the end of a pencil. After working with the prickly pear myself I appreciated all the effort that went into those three little dots.