Friday, February 26, 2016

Folks, I had a feeling we were not in New York anymore.

 No, indeed, we were in Winter Park, Florida!  But to tell the truth, if we hadn't gone to a lush and incredibly beautiful botanical garden there, it would have been hard to locate exactly where we were on the planet.  Of course, the vegetation told me we were definitely in the tropics:

There were Live Oaks draped with Spanish Moss.

I saw palm trees with orchids of many colors sprouting from the tree trunks.

Glossy-leaved shrubs were loaded with heavy blooms of lovely camellias.

The irises came in colors I had never laid eyes on before.

Yes, the botanical beauties certainly told me we must be somewhere "Down South."  And the homes and hotels in Winter Park quite often displayed a distinctive Spanish-style architecture, built mostly of masonry and ornamented with elaborate wrought iron.  But I was struck by how much is just the same as anywhere else in America, with the same Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks and IHOPs and other American chains lining the boulevards.  I couldn't find any place where I could get a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and here we were in the heart of Orange County, where most of America's Minute Maid or Florida Natural OJ comes from.

But that's OK.  We were here to visit dear family members, all of us more and more aware that the opportunities to be together are growing rarer and more difficult as age and disability encroach. And we did have a wonderful time, just being together, enjoying my brother-in-law's terrific cooking, and watching a smile spread across my sweet sister-in-law's face as she recognized someone who loves her.  We also got to meet the newest member of the Donnelly clan, a cheerful chubby little guy who delighted in shouting for joy.  And of course, the soft balmy Florida air certainly added to our pleasure.

I hadn't been to Florida in many years, and each time I visit I recall how my family came  every winter when I was just a small girl, back in the 1940s and early 50s, driving down to St. Petersburg Beach from southern Michigan, where my father was a Chris-Craft dealer.  Occasionally, he'd be hauling a motor yacht (Chris-Craft used to build their big boats in Algonac, Michigan) to deliver to a customer in Florida.  We would then stay in Florida for some weeks, since my father's marina didn't have much business during a Michigan winter.

We'd head south out of Michigan through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia before reaching Florida,  a three-day trip traveling two-lane blacktops that took us through every town and hamlet along the way.  This was long before interstate highways or chain restaurants or motels, and we spent the nights in tourist homes or roadside cabins that I, a small child, found delightfully cute but which often horrified my mom with their inadequate housekeeping.

In pre-McDonald's America, local food was definitely distinctive to each region. There was country ham in Kentucky, hard and salty, with red-eye gravy for sopping your breakfast biscuits.  We definitely knew we'd arrived "down south" when grits appeared with our breakfast eggs even though we'd not ordered them.  My dad couldn't wait to hit Tennessee, when we'd all have to keep alert for signs advertising "Genuine Pit Bar-B-Q!"  Georgia meant roadside pecan stands, where we could find coconut candy and peach preserves as well as pecan pralines, and Florida brought citrus groves where we would get fresh-squeezed OJ as well as sticky hands and faces from gorging on sweet Temple oranges.

My dad would launch the yacht at a marina on Tampa Bay, and I recall docks encrusted with barnacles and sentried by pelicans perching on every pier post.  There were mud flats aswarm with fiddler crabs that disappeared down their holes in a flash at the slightest footfall, and dockside cats that actually went in the water after fish, so their fur was stiff with salt.  We could get fish fry or shrimp and hush puppies at lots of dockside shacks, and my grown-up palate still longs for those sweet crispy shrimp that I have never been able to find again.  I also recall that Tampa was then the center of Cuban life in America, and we feasted there on Garbanzo-bean soup, Cuban sandwiches, and coconut ice cream.

Yes, it definitely seemed back then that Florida was far away from home.  I'm glad we can get there much more quickly now, but the fast-food stands in the airport sure can't match the culinary adventures of driving there in the 1940s on local roads through every town and eating at local diners with local folks.


threecollie said...

I didn't get to visit Florida until the early 70s on a spring break trip with friend and dogs. I loved it then, although even at that time it was much different than now. I remember snorkeling in the Key, with parrot fish and a scary barracuda, and seeing my first anhinga. I still love it very much, but I wish I had gotten to see the version of your childhood. My family wasn't much for travel so, alas, I didn't. Thanks for sharing.

Jens Zorn said...

Thanks for your graceful recall of travel in pre-interstate days, particularly your description of regional eats!
(I'm afraid that recent political debates have re-defined "Cuban sandwich" as Rubio-Trump-Cruz on the podium.)

Unknown said...

Indeed, we have lost a lot with the "incorporation" of America. On a different note however, I have noted how the Long Island Pine Barrens resemble Central Florida ecosytems. Remove the tropical palms and the sandy soils and pine trees are very similiar..

Jens Zorn said...

Re that photograph of the live oak, your description failed to include that monster in the background!

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Thanks for stopping by to leave your comments, dear friends. I love knowing you come along with me on my travels, and I also love the information you share with me. Regarding that "monster" you mentioned, Jens, the garden was hosting an exhibit of giant insects made from natural materials, and this was one of them.