Cedar Key has a long and diverse history with unique industries you’d not find elsewhere, such as a pencil factory and a broom-making business, but its main draw has always predictably revolved around the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Seafood is enmeshed in the local history as much as the names of famous men or the railroad or anything else, and today the island is known for its fine fishing and also the delights found in local restaurants.
Those that have survived and have a loyal local following add to a much-admired history that goes beyond simply the restaurant scene and is entwined with the deep lore of Floridian foodways. Cedar Key, after all, was a true Cracker outpost—it was not easily accessible prior to the coming of the railroad, and even then it remained remote. The food culture of the island grew up around what settlers could produce, gather, or catch, and while today you may find pizza and hamburgers with their universal tourist appeal, you will also find some genuine treasures—fresh shrimp, an embarrassment of varieties of fishes, the legendary heart of palm salad, and, all in all, not just a snapshot but a panoramic landscape painting of all the Gulf can offer to the table.
Just a little ways outside of Cedar Key, while you’re still on the main highway, you’ll approach the small community of Sumner and see on one side of the road Robinson’s Seafood Market. Robinson’s began as a seafood seller—the owner’s husband is the captain of a commercial fishing vessel—but now they have a full-fledged restaurant plus a fishing charter business. What unites the two enterprises full circle is their commitment to fresh seafood. If they cannot get it off their own boats, they know someone else who will have it. So shrimp comes in from Apalachicola, crabs from Crystal River, and everything is always fresh and normally from Florida’s vast waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The difference this makes cannot be overstated: the native recipes of the region grew up with fresh catches, not with frozen or imported seafood, and to prepare them to perfection the freshness is the first essential ingredient.
Florida seafood begins with mullet, a favored native fish—but it begins just as well with fried shrimp, of course. Frying has long been the preferred method of cooking seafood in the Deep South. After all, it’s a practical approach: breading and frying is quick, simple, and pleases nearly every palate. At Robinson’s, I’ve had some of the best fried shrimp ever—so rapidly out of the fryer that the waitress will caution you to let them sit a moment before eating them lest you burn your mouth. The shrimp are as fresh as can be, with a taste that doesn’t lie about the fact. Hush puppies, those cornmeal fritters long associated with Southern fish fries, come out just as hot and just as fresh as the shrimp at Robinson’s, and the meal is rounded out with homemade coleslaw and fish chowder—sometimes a New England-style clam chowder, sometimes a traditional fisherman’s, and sometimes even a gumbo. The soup is predicated on what is around to go into it—which again means its ingredients are perfectly fresh.
Speaking of, clams are another specialty of Cedar Key’s seafood output: they’re raised here, and, for local commerce as well as for local palates, are a point of pride. There are of course a nearly endless variety of ways to cook clams, but the New England clam bake or clam chowder is rarely the destination for these local clams. Instead they show up in buttery sauces, often as starters, sometimes stewed with wine.
One local restaurant, Tony’s Seafood, however, is an exception. They offer their award-winning New England clam chowder, a hit year after year. As the restaurant itself notes, they only established their business in Cedar Key in 2005, and their famous chowder was based off New England examples their chef encountered while working in restaurants up north. So while there’s nothing essentially Floridian about their New England clam chowder, they have created a fan favorite that’s certainly worth trying. Similarly, the Blue Desert has a focus on homemade Italian food with an emphasis on seafood—and, most of all, on everything’s being made from scratch. These trends speak well of Cedar Key’s growth and its attraction as a tourist destination and an “Old” Florida offering so many choices for the visitor.
Grilling is of course also a favored means of cooking fish, but, with the exception of large restaurant kitchens, fewer fish can be cooked grilling versus frying, hence the continuing popularity of frying for church cook-outs and other affairs. I’ve never seen a church hold a “fish grill” or “fish broil,” but I’ve seen many a fish fry, and sometimes you find the very best Southern fried fish—catfish especially—at such church, school, or ball league functions.
Sweets, often also a staple of church fund-raisers and the like, come to Cedar Key in the form of Florida’s famous key lime pie. A proper key lime pie is of course made from actual key limes which are grown in the Florida Keys and are smaller than Persian limes and impart a different flavor. True key lime pie’s filling is an off-white, creamy color and consistency, whereas the “fakes” are a bright neon green. For those who might desire a sweet at some point in the day aside from dessert, Holey Moley Donuts and More offers a variety of homemade donuts, pastries, and other treats during the morning hours.
Cedar Key has developed some additional specialties of its own, but almost all by way of a pragmatic approach to using the bounty of the seas or local farming. One very interesting such dish is the heart of palm salad. These were originally made from the hearts of the Floridian sabal palmetto tree but now use imported hearts of palm since non-native species are more ecologically and environmentally friendly to cultivate. While the heart of palm salad has long been served in New York’s fine hotels and even in the days of luxury rail travel aboard trains’ dining cars, since the middle of the twentieth century it seems to have fallen from favor, disappearing from most restaurant menus.
Not so in Cedar Key—where it has forever been a commonplace dish and not just an exotic fancy of the wealthy. The salad uses the delicate, artichoke-like palm hearts as its key feature, but it typically includes fresh lettuces, often olives, sometimes cabbage, and a dressing that tends to be light and lemony. (While I’ve seen creamy dressings used for heart of palm salads, they are neither traditional nor in my opinion the best of choices given the delicate taste of the palm hearts.) At the Island Hotel and Restaurant—long renowned for its heart of palm salad—the salad is made with an addition of dates and fresh fruit, turning it further towards its tropical theme and bringing in some sweetness. Bessie Gibbs, owner of the hotel in the 1940’s, invented the recipe the current owners still use today. If you order the salad here in Cedar Key—the Island Room at Cedar Cove also prepares a superb version—keep in mind you’re dining on part of a long local legacy that began not from mystic tropical dreams alone but out of necessary use of what was locally available.
As to Southern traditions, you can find the real Florida Cracker foodways in the pages of a few cookbooks, starting with the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ seminal Cross Creek Cookery and Sally Morrison’s Cross Creek Kitchens which follows in Rawlings’ footsteps. Plenty of cookbooks have “Florida Cracker” in their name but only offer a sundry array of very stereotypical recipes without real Cracker roots.
Narrowing it down to Cracker seafood is even harder. Of course, Florida seafood is more than just its early, humble beginnings, and restaurants like the Island Hotel’s, Carlin’s, and Steamer’s offer standard though well-prepared American seafood selections with pan-frying, broiling, blackening, and other means of cooking fresh local seafood plus pasta and steaks. While a far cry and quite a feast away from Cracker origins, there are still traces of the Southern styles in these dishes, with the frying, the blackening, and specific seasonings and side dishes on offer. You wouldn’t mistake these seafood restaurants for their cousins in New England or upstate New York: they speak with a Southern accent just as surely as they make use of the seafood off of Floridian fishing boats.
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