Category Archives: Geography

What One Thing Most Helped Colonial Agriculture?

There are many things one might consider vital to the success of agriculture in Britain’s North American colonies, and indeed throughout the New World. Plows and scythes, learning about new crops, introducing pigs and cows–so many possibilities. But the introduction that would have the greatest impact on the future success of agriculture in the colonies–and up to the present time–was not even brought along because it would help agriculture.

The honey bee was brought to Jamestown in 1622 because colonists wanted honey. The discovery of pollination was still two centuries in the future when bees landed in the New World. But just because colonists had no idea what the bees were doing didn’t keep the bees from doing it. All the fruit trees and vegetables and other crops brought with settlers were made possible by the introduction of bees. (Corn/maize had been a blessing at the outset, and kept settlers from starving, because corn is wind pollinated, so bees weren’t necessary.)

The bees did more than just make introduced crops viable, however. Unlike some other types of bees, the European honey bee does not specialize. It likes any flowers, whether familiar or new. They loved their new home and, unlike the earlier human settlers, found plenty to eat. They spread rapidly, always staying well ahead of westward human migration, supplying honey to even the earliest pioneers. Native Americans, who called them “English flies,” began to associate honey bees with the spread of European settlement.

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Tampa, Old: Ybor City and Columbia Restaurant

The Columbia Restaurant was the only food destination from my childhood that I was able to revisit on this trip. It was as fabulous as I remembered—not just the food, but the décor, the Old World charm, the sky lights and balconies, and most especially the gorgeous tile work inside and out.

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa

Columbia Restaurant, Tampa


The Columbia is the oldest restaurant in Florida, having opened in 1905. It was created by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., and is now run by the fifth generation of the founding family. I love that kind of history.

As well as being the oldest restaurant in Florida, it is also the largest—and in fact, according to their website, is the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Everything I have ever eaten there has been wonderful, but they are particularly known for their Cuban black bean soup, sangria, flan, “1905 salad,” Cuban sandwich, and seafood dishes.

Over the years, a few other locations were opened for the Columbia, including what is now the oldest restaurant in Sarasota. But the original Columbia is at the outer edge of Ybor City in Tampa. Ybor City is a National Historic District that has been home to a wide range of immigrants over the years, most especially Cuban, Spanish, Italian, German, and Jewish.

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa

7th Street, Ybor City, Tampa


Ybor City is now a top destination for cigar aficionados, as the main street is lined with shops carrying hand-rolled cigars. We explored the length of 7th Avenue, enjoying the historic markers, statues, and old buildings, and stopped in a couple of cigar shops to watch the artisans at work, appreciating the care and skill needed to make really good cigars. Then, we headed for the Columbia.
Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars

Cigar-rolling station, tobacco, cigars


Should you get to Florida, here is more information on the Columbia Restaurant (including a lot more history, plus the menus) and on Ybor City (again, more history and lots of useful information for visitors).

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Nathalie Dupree on Florida Food

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the reason I was in Florida was for a food-writers conference, and we spent several days listening to great speakers on topics ranging from marketing your writing to how to describe Florida food. Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree was on hand to tell us about traditional Florida cooking–not the fabulous, innovative stuff we were experiencing at the restaurants we were visiting, but the kind of fare that has been foundational and long-standing.

Dupree noted that her introduction to Florida’s cuisine was in the book Cross Creek, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. While my intro was my dad and visits to Florida, I’ve read Cross Creek, and its descriptions of Rawlings’s creamed crab, with milk from her own cow and crab caught only hours before, the fish fries and hush puppies, and the fresh fruit make the food of the era (1920s) in Florida sound not only appealing, but worth carrying on.

Florida’s traditional cuisine blends elements of Southern food with Caribbean, especially Cuban, but with considerable influence from African American and Spanish cultures. Dupree related that, in much of Florida, you are often served black-eyed peas, coleslaw, and crab cakes for lunch–which is very Southern. The American South stretches from Maryland to the southern tip of Florida, but of that 2,000-mile coastline, almost half of it is Floridian. If you add in all the rivers and lakes, Florida has 11,000 miles of waterways. Hence, the focus on seafood.

Dupree said the best description she’s ever encountered of Florida’s stone crab was in a James Bond novel. (I did a search online, and Bond dining on stone crab appears in Goldfinger, at a restaurant called “Bill’s on the Beach,” though it is clearly Joe’s Stone Crab that is being described.)

Some other tidbits:
The South has fried pies because no one would light the oven in Florida in August.
“Streak of lean” is the Southern name for belly bacon.
The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook written in 1824 by Mary Randolph, includes a recipe for gazpacho, underscoring how far north Spanish influence reached.

This is not the first time I’ve heard Nathalie Dupree speak, and she always comes armed with wonderful stories and anecdotes. So if you have a chance to hear her, take it. If you don’t have that chance, there are always her cookbooks.

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Florida Crackers

I had heard the term “Florida Cracker” before this trip, but had never heard it explained. The term comes from the early days of Florida settlement. When Spanish explorers in the early 1500s failed to find gold, silver, or the fountain of youth, they headed back to the well-established Spanish colonies in Mexico and South America, leaving behind all the livestock they’d brought with them, including large herds of cattle and many horses. The animals became feral and adapted to the Florida climate. When English settlers began arriving, about a century after the Spanish had left, they found the makings of a cattle industry just waiting for those resourceful enough to take advantage of the by now substantial, if wild, herds of livestock.

Some came on horseback, while others captured the wild horses abandoned by the Spanish. With nothing more than a horse and a whip with which to move the herds of cattle, these early settlers founded successful ranches. In time, they became known for the loud crack of their stock whips–hence, crackers.

The small, agile, wild horses they adopted were so indispensable to the success of the crackers that they became known as cracker horses, much as mounts in the American West would become known as cow ponies. They were the horses needed by those managing cattle.

However, this was long before the American West had even been explored, let alone settled. So the first American cowboys, horses, and cattle ranches were all Floridian. Even today, Florida is a major beef producer, and Florida Cracker culture lives on.

The culture lives on, but the traditional horses were eventually replaced by quarter horses. However, efforts have been made to preserve the bloodlines of the handsome, little Florida Cracker Horse. Here’s a video about their history and those efforts to keep them around.

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Tampa Bay Bridges

One of the things worth noting is that it would be impossible to get around the area without bridges. On the St. Pete side of Tampa Bay, there are strings of islands that can only be reached by bridges. If you want to travel from St. Pete to Tampa, if you don’t want to spend hours driving around the end of the bay, you’ll need to cross one of Old Tampa Bay’s long bridges. (If you’re flying into Tampa Airport, you’ll see these from the air as you approach.)

Happily, crossing the bridges is quite wonderful. It offers splendid views of the water and whichever city you’re approaching. Depending on the light, it can be absolutely magical.

As with any city, rush hour can be frustrating—but if you’re on vacation, just plan around rush hour. (And if you’re from somewhere like LA, Chicago, or NYC, you probably won’t even recognize Tampa Bay’s rush hour as actually being an issue.)

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge

Heading toward Tampa on the Gandy Bridge


The view from the bridge

The view from the bridge

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Tampa Bay: My, How You’ve Changed

My dad was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida. As a result, while I was growing up, our family spent a lot of summer vacations visiting dad’s relatives down south. This was long before Walt Disney had even considered building anything in Orlando. We loved the beaches, and I became a world-class shell collector, combing the beaches in the early morning with my dad. But there was always a lot more than just the beaches to enjoy.

A few favorite food memories are associated with these trips. Warm-water lobster was cheap enough that you could feed it to kids. Smoked mullet was one of the best foods imaginable, and they sold it from stands along the road, which made it even more fun. And black bean soup, tostones, and flan at Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City were definite favorites, as well.

On top of the dining, beaches, and relatives, there were wonderful things to see and do on the Gulf side of Florida. We examined raw sponges and the brass-helmeted diving gear of Greek sponge divers in Tarpon Springs, watched entertainers at the Kapok Tree in Clearwater, got fresh seafood in Pass-a-Grille, explored Fort De Soto down on Mullet Key, and delighted in the remarkable museums on the Ringling estate in Sarasota.

Then life got busy, relatives died, other destinations called, and I didn’t get to the Tampa Bay area for decades. I’d been to Miami on business and to Key West with friends, but not to the place where I’d spent so much time growing up–until last month. A writers conference offered an opportunity to find out what had changed and what was the same in the destination of my youth.

The palm trees, banyans, and birds of paradise still made me smile. The red-tiled roofs of older buildings led me to wonder if the reason I fell in love so quickly with Southern California was because of the similarities of architecture and plants that were so familiar to me. I learned that Tarpon Springs was still Greek, Columbia Restaurant still had black bean soup, the Ringling Estate in Sarasota was still a destination, and Pass-a-Grille was still good for seafood–but there were a lot of changes. Roadside stands selling smoked mullet had vanished. In St. Pete, small, old-Florida architecture shared the streets with modern high-rises.

While I missed a few things, I quickly learned that there were new delights, from excellent museums to sensational dining options, mixed in with the old delights of tropical ambiance and lovely beaches. There are a lot more people–but also more air conditioning, which is a good thing.

The conference kept me busy most of the time, but I still managed to fit in a bit of exploring and a fair bit of excellent dining. As a result, it will take a few posts to share all that I experienced.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

Old and new blend in downtown St. Pete.

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Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes

When I visited Spain, I found that garlic is a mainstay of Spanish cooking, and is often used with great abandon. I was surprised and delighted to find a variety of garlic soups and garlic sauces. Ajo Blanco is a cold soup–particularly welcome in warm weather–that combines garlic and almonds. The recipe comes from Málaga, in southern Spain. Málaga was founded by the Phoenicians in the 12th century BC, was controlled at various times by the Romans and Visigoths, and was among the first cities to fall to the Moors in 711 AD, when they began their invasion of Spain. Almonds remain one of the main exports from the port of Málaga, and remain an important part of the local cuisine.

A couple of notes about this recipe. I love garlic, and usually look for the fattest cloves I can find, or add more than a recipe requires. However, in this recipe, since the garlic is not cooked, it’s pretty potent, even with three average cloves, so don’t get carried away. Traditionally, this would be made using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor or blender makes the process significantly easier.

And finally, some really good news. Almonds have been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and may cut the risk of lung cancer, even if you smoke. Throw in the garlic and olive oil that this recipe contains, and this delightful and unusual recipe is almost frighteningly good for you. Enjoy.

Ajo Blanco con Uvas
(Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes)

5 oz. blanched almonds
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
3 cups ice water
3 dozen seedless green grapes

Place the almonds and garlic in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. (Do not over-process, or the oil will separate out of the almonds. Stop while almonds look like crumbs, and not peanut butter.) Add the bread crumbs, salt, and 1 cup of water, and process until mixture is a fine paste. With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Next, gradually add the vinegar and as much of the remaining ice water as your food processor can comfortably accommodate. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in any remaining ice water.

Adjust salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or (even better) overnight. Peel grapes (not absolutely required, but they float more easily if peeled). Float the grapes in the soup just before serving, or serve soup and float grapes in the individual bowls. Alternatively to using grapes, you could substitute 1 cup of chopped apple. Serves 4–6.

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Almonds

Though Prunus amygdalus is, as its name hints, a close relative of plums, as well as peaches, you’ll never eat this tree’s fruit. For this drupe (the technical name for fruit with stones, such as plums and cherries), life is the pits. Literally. The fruit of this native of southwestern Asia becomes leathery as it matures, and splits open when ripe, exposing the world’s most popular nut, the almond.

Actually, there are two types of almond—sweet and bitter. The bitter almond is used primarily for flavoring, but it is the sweet almond that we eat. The sweet almond, which is almost as famous for its beautiful white flowers as for its nuts, closely resembles the related peach.

The almond probably started in Asia Minor, but it was on the move so early that it is hard to be precise about where its roots truly lie. It is believed that almonds, along with dates, were among the earliest cultivated foods. Almonds have been found on the island of Crete, at the Neolithic level under the palace of Knossos and in Bronze Age storerooms at Hagia Triada. The almond was written of by the Babylonians, Anatolians (who used it largely for oil), and Hittites, and, along with the pistachio, is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.

The Greeks were the first to grow almonds in Europe. The Greek scholar, Theophrastus, mentions in his history of plants, written about 300 BC, that almond trees were the only trees in Greece that produced blossoms before leaves. The Romans, who referred to almonds as “the Greek nut,” brought almonds to Italy around 200 BC The Romans used almonds primarily in the form of sweets, but also used ground almonds to thicken and flavor sauces. Actually, ground almonds have never lost their popularity as a thickener. Continue reading

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Philadelphia Spice Event

For any of my readers who are in the Philadelphia area, I’ll be speaking on April 16, 2015, at an event put on by the Geographical Society of Philadelphia: The Life of Spice.

Here’s the description from the Geographical Society website:

The Chemical Heritage Foundation, The Monell Chemical Senses Center and the Geographical Society are presenting this very spicy event!

Food Historian, Cynthia Clampitt will present the travelogue of spices… where they are grown and how they travel the world.

Monell Scientist Gary Beauchamp will illuminate the science behind spices. Marianne Gillette of McCormick Spice Company will describe the delicious roles of spices in cuisine.

After the presentations, enjoy a reception to taste and smell spices. Feastivities is preparing a delicious menu infused with the tastes and smells of ginger, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, turmeric and more. Scientists will demonstrate the science behind the spice and effects on your senses.

A night to SPICE up your life…see, smell, and taste them! Take home a flavorful gift bag. For $75 enjoy general admission to the presentation and reception. For $100, enjoy reserved seating and recognition in the program.

You can find out more about the event, and buy tickets if you’re interested in attending, at the Geographical Society website: http://www.geographicalsociety.org/the-world-of-spices/

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Nutmeg and Mace

The ancient world was rife with mythic twins: Apollo and Artemis, Romulus and Remus, Castor and Pollux. But there is another pair of twins that, while eluding the ancients, once seemed almost as mythic as these legendary pairs—twins that engendered centuries of argosies and adventures. The fragrant, flowering evergreen tree known as Myristica fragrans is the mother of these twins. When the fleshy, peach-like fruit of this tree is mature, it splits open, revealing a brown nut surrounded by a bright red web. The web, or aril, is separated from the seed, and both are dried. The aril, which turns somewhat brownish as it dries, is the spice known as mace, while the dark, hard nut is nutmeg.

Nutmeg and mace were being traded in Asia long before Europeans knew these spices existed. A few scholars maintain that the ancient world did know of nutmeg, but there is little evidence— and the strongest evidence against knowledge of the spice is that the major recorders of life in the ancient world did not mention it, and they mentioned everything about food and spice. It might have been given as a gift to some ruler or other, probably in North Africa, given the fact that most trade with Asia was handled by Arab spice merchants who traded all across North Africa, but it didn’t get to Greece or Rome. However, it had reached Constantinople by the 9th century, as it was recorded that St. Theodore the Studite allowed monks to use nutmeg on their pease porridge on meat-free days.

Nutmeg probably didn’t reach Europe until the Middle Ages, making it the last of what were then known as the “noble spices” to be introduced. The first reliable report of nutmeg being used in Europe is from 1190, when the streets of Rome were scented (or, more accurately, fumigated) with spices, including “India nuts,” as nutmeg is sometimes called. It seems likely that, as with other spices, it was Arab traders who carried nutmegs to the Middle East and Italians who carried them throughout Europe.

The Portuguese had located the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, by 1511, sighting (or perhaps just smelling) cloves growing in the northern islands. However, no Europeans saw nutmegs growing until 1521, when Magellan’s expedition (minus Magellan by this point, as he’d been killed in the Philippines) reached the Banda Islands, in the southern Moluccas. The Banda Islands were the only place in the world where nutmeg and mace grew. (The northern Moluccas were the only place in the world where cloves grew, which, though they had reached Europe earlier than nutmegs, were still something Magellan and company were looking for.) Continue reading

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