In this episode, we discuss family food (and gator food), talk with my Mom about being a waitress in the time of COVID-19 as well as discuss Florida food, quarantine cooking, and cookies with Janet Keeler — a journalism instructor, 35-year newspaper vet, food writing teacher, and freelance food/travel writer.
More from Janet
Cookielicious: 150 Fabulous Recipes to Bake & Share (University Press of Florida)
She’s a cookbook reviewer at The Zest.
Check out her Instagram, especially the #blackchefsmatter posts she talks about in the episode.
* If you have any recipes or any stories that you want to send, you can email us at AFloridaThing@gmail.com. Subscribe to the podcast and our newsletter.
My mother didn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she would get a chicken and swing it like a lasso over her head. She never said, you know, damn, but she would ring a chicken’s neck and come inside and chop it off. I remember smelling scorched feathers. After Mama chopped of the chicken’s head, she would boil them. And that is not a pleasant aroma, but the frying of the actual results of all that was a heavenly scent. – Gramel
I grew up eating mullet. It’s a freshwater fish. The tail doesn’t have bones in it. That’s why mama started us with that. And then she made hush puppies from heaven. She made it in a cornmeal batter. And we always had baked beans, grits, and coleslaw. And of course, iced tea which is the house wine in the South. – Gramel
Swamp cabbage is cabbage, and they have a leaf of cabbage and then they put a helping of some type of sherbet usually green, and then peanuts on top of it. And then they cover the top of it with a bunch of shredded cabbage and then that all males it’s more of a desert. And you can only get these at places like Homosassa .I went through a period that for probably 15 years, whenever we went out – about every other time, we’d go to someplace that had it and it was always a fish place that would have it. – Gramel
“Aunt Annie used to get the scraps leftover from the food she made in the cafeteria and put them in tin cans and take them home to feed her dogs. And her alligator. She probably fed her dog, first. OK, well, she’d feed her family first. Then, she would go out to the end of her little wooden pier. She would hit these cans up against those boards, and here would come usually just one or two alligators. She would throw the contents of those tin cans into the water, and they would eat and have good time and leave.
And she had three boys and my brother that swim in her pond, which later became a lake because it got bigger and bigger. Thankfully, the gators never, ever bothered anybody. And they never bothered the dogs. I’d go down and visit with my Aunt Annie because we only lived a half a block from her. It would be dark before I got done talking, and I would leave to go home. She’d say, now, Margie, just shuffle your feet to scare the alligators. And you won’t even hear or see them. And I’d say I don’t think so Aunt Annie. She’d yell for her husband Frank to come walk out with me. So, alligators were a part of their life. And there was never a bad scene.
They tell you do not feed alligators. But I think since she fed them every night, seven days a week, basically at the same time – and she fed them wonderful cafeteria leftovers. They were content. They didn’t have to be hungry. They weren’t probably ever hungry.
I never swam in the pond, and neither did her daughter Sissy. We didn’t want that pond water in our hair. I didn’t want squishy dirt in my feet. And I was not into sharing my swimming space with alligators.” – Gramel
We have regular customers that I see every day, but a lot of them are dying off and we’re getting new customers. With the COVID, they’re not coming out and they shouldn’t; I’m glad they’re not coming out for their health. But I miss them. – Mom
Janet Keeler Chat!
On the start of the annual the Times Cookie issue: My very first year as the food editor was 2000. And around the fall of that year, I got a call close to Christmas. It was from an older man whose wife had died a few years earlier. They had made a cookie together, and he couldn’t bring himself to make them for the several years after she died because it was too sad for him. So, he decided that he was going to that year. And he had a question for me about cookie sheets. But we kept talking about how he was finally going to do it by himself. He was sort of crying on the phone, and then I was crying. I gave him whatever information I had and a few weeks later I got a package in the mail. He sent me some cookies. It was so sweet. At that point, it really hit home that the cookies were just more than sugar, flour, and eggs. That’s when that project started.
#BlackChefsMatter: There’s actually a hashtag out there called Black Chefs Matter. I think I’ve made maybe like four of them, just kind of drawing attention. I’m waiting for someone to say how come you’re not sharing the recipes and then I’m going to say because I want you to buy their cookbook. – Janet
On Cuban Sandwiches: I first came here from California to visit a friend in the 80s. I had my first Cuban sandwich. And I thought, wow, this is something else. I mean, it was so good. It was like the pressed one. It was so good. So, I always think of that as Florida food to me. Cuban sandwiches. I would say most Floridians know the Cuban sandwich I know it’s spread throughout the country. But to me it seems very, you know, Floridian and then you get here and you find out what was maybe invented in Ybor City or maybe it was Miami. That wasn’t totally Cuban because it’s a mixture of Cuban things, but also Spanish. So, it’s interesting, but it’s such a mishmash of food here and people would definitely debate about that.
Insider’s Tip: Janet’s favorite Cuban is from Bodega on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg.
On Food Writing: I think most people look at food writing as it’s about recipes, and it’s about cookbooks or it’s about cooking. I look at it more as really writing about the way we live, but also the intersection of politics and health and the economy and culture. In my food writing class, we look at what I call a reported food story, meaning it has to do with food, but it also has to do with news, what’s going on in the world. The Associated Press won a Pulitzer a few years back for a series of stories they did. They found that people harvesting shrimp in Southeast Asia were being kept in cages. The seafood they were harvesting – basically, as enslaved people – was winding up on our on our dinner tables here in the United States. So to me, that’s a food story.
On Writing about Being a Home Cook: At the Tampa Bay Times, I did a lot of home cooking stories. I don’t have any professional cooking training, I have taken cooking classes here and there, but I have no degree, or you know, certification in anything. I did a lot of stuff on home cooking. And I very much like to write about when things went wrong in my kitchen. Because I thought, there was just too much writing about hey, look, it’s a beautiful cake you can make and look at all these things. And then I would try it and I thought I, you know, I’m like you – I can’t do this.
On Mangoes: Florida doesn’t have any commercial mango groves anymore. There were many here at some time but you know, Hurricane Andrew in 92 sort of wiped them out. They didn’t really come back because there were so much competition from Mexico and some other places that it was kind of dwindling anyway. But there’s a place in Coral Gables called the Fairchild tropical garden. And they have the world’s foremost authorities on mangoes there, and they propagate a lot of mangoes and they study mangoes around the world. They have actually propagated a lot of kinds there and have created these hybrids. So there’s a lot of mangoes, like if you think of like the famous mangoes, they’re all named after people that lived in South Florida. So there’s a long connection. There’s one called the Fairchild which is named after David Fairchild, who was kind of a fruit and spice hunter that went around the world. And they’re all named after people that lived in South Florida. I think that’s amazing story. The Tommy Atkins I think is the most widely grown commercial mango in the world mostly in Mexico, but it’s named after a guy who is from Miami. I don’t think people know the history so much of the mango, thousands of varieties of them.