Mmmmm… Swamp Cabbage!

You may be aware that the noble sabal palmetto is Florida’s state tree, but did you know you can eat it? And we’re not just talking about a survival tactic. From Wakulla and Apalachicola in the north to LaBelle and Immokalee in the south, Floridians all over the state have made a tradition out of preparing the hearts of these trees as a tasty dish called swamp cabbage.

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

The tradition of eating hearts of Florida palm trees likely predates the arrival of Europeans in North America. Captain Hugh Young, Andrew Jackson’s topographical engineer, sketched out a few remarks on the subject in his notes regarding the territory between the Aucilla and Suwannee rivers in 1818. He wrote:

“In the cypress swamps between Assilla and Sahwanne there is abundance of cabbage palmetto. […] It rises with a single stem to the height of forty feet and supports at the top a large mass resembling an immense pineapple, from which project a number of three-sided stems three or four feet long with leaves like the low palmetto but much larger and without prickles. The vegetable substance from which the stems and leaves are supported has in its center a white brittle mucilaginous mass composed of the centre folds of the leaves forming it, which may be eaten raw and when boiled has a taste somewhat like parsnips. In times of scarcity the Indians live on it, and it is said to be wholesome and nutritious.”

We at Florida Memory are still somewhat concerned about Captain Young’s use of the word mucilaginous to describe something edible, but overall his description is fairly accurate, and those of us who have had swamp cabbage  agree it is tasty.

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

As incoming settlers learned about swamp cabbage and began experimenting with it, it became a favorite side dish, especially in sparsely populated areas where the sabal (or cabbage) palmetto was more prevalent. In modern times, swamp cabbage can still be found on the menus of restaurants serving traditional Southern cooking. It is typically prepared by slicing up the heart of a section of palmetto trunk, called a “boot,” and then stewing it with spices and salt pork or some other seasoning meat. The finished product is grayish-green in color, and pairs well with fried fish, pork, or other traditional Florida entrees. Swamp cabbage can also be enjoyed raw, and often appears in salads by the more refined name of “heart of palm.”

Many Florida communities consider swamp cabbage something worth celebrating. Each year at the Florida Forest Festival in Perry, locals celebrate their forestry heritage with a parade, fireworks, live music, and the world’s largest free fish fry. Often, the menu has included swamp cabbage. Down south in Hendry County, residents of LaBelle hold a festival each year devoted to nothing but swamp cabbage, even choosing a Swamp Cabbage Queen to reign over the festivities. In Cedar Key, heart of palm salad served with fresh fruit and a scoop of pistachio ice cream is a favorite traditional restaurant menu item.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival's program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival’s program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

Tasty as swamp cabbage may be, the cooking and eating of it is the easy part. Cutting through layers of tough palmetto fibers to get to the edible “boot” without damaging the tender flesh inside is much more difficult. The following images from the Florida Photographic Collection illustrate the method used to harvest swamp cabbage.

Here, we see Ralph O'Brien of Tampa chopping away the

Here, we see Ralph O’Brien of Tampa chopping away the “straps,” which are actually the bases of the fronds or leaves of the tree. This must be done at an angle so that the axe does not become lodged in the inner “boot,” which can spoil the tender flesh inside (photo 1982).

Once the straps have been cleared away from the

Once the straps have been cleared away from the “boot,” the weight of the remaining attached fronds will cause it to break away from the tree. Here we see Ralph O’Brien chopping off the remaining fronds to make the boot easier to carry (photo 1982).

 

The outer layers of the

The outer layers of the “boot” are tough, bitter, and inedible. Here, we see Ralph O’Brien carefully splitting successive concentric layers of the boot to get down to the edible flesh at the center (photo 1982).

Once enough layers have been removed from the

Once enough layers have been removed from the “boot,” the remaining outer layers may be removed with a sharp knife. Here we see a Lafayette County woman working her way down to the edible flesh of the boot, which she then will slice into a bowl of cool water. The water temporarily prevents the swamp cabbage from turning brown (photo 1983).

Are you ready to try this Florida delicacy? Whether it’s eaten raw on a salad or boiled down with a generous helping of seasoning meat and black pepper, Florida’s state tree is both beautiful and a tasty treat with a long and storied past.

What are your favorite traditional Florida dishes? Tell us by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post on Facebook!

 

Animated Map Series: Jacksonville

Florida Maps: Then & Now is an animated map series from the State Library and Archives of Florida. The project uses Google Earth to create animated videos with historic and modern maps, photographs, and primary source documents from our collections.

This episode features historic maps of Jacksonville.

If you have trouble viewing the video, download it here.

Transcript

Welcome to Florida Maps: Then & Now, an animated map series from the State Archives of Florida. This episode highlights historic maps of Jacksonville.

Long before concrete and steel spanned the St. Johns River near downtown Jacksonville, the Timucuan chief Saturiwa (Sat-ur-e-ba [IPA: Sæt-ur-ih-bah]) presided over the area shown on this map, from the confirmed Spanish Land Grant of Ezekiel Hudnall. This Westward bend in the St. Johns sits upstream from the French built Fort Caroline, destroyed and then rebuilt by the Spanish and christened Fort San Mateo in the 1560s.

By the 18th century, just decades after diseases and slave raids vanquished the Timucua, Seminole cattlemen drove their herds across the river at this narrow spot along the St. Johns River. Called Waca-Palatka (wack-a-pill-at-ka [IPA:Wak-ʌ-pæl-ɑt-kɑ]) by the Seminoles, and Cow ford by English speaking settlers, the area served as a natural point to wade and ferry cattle to eager buyers. The Americans renamed the area Jacksonville in the 1820s after Andrew Jackson, hero of the First Seminole War and the territory’s first governor.

Jackson’s policies eventually led to the removal of Seminole Indians from the area, and forced those few that remained in Florida into the deep recesses of the Everglades. Jacksonville became the hub of commerce in Northeast Florida by the time of the American Civil War. After the war, Jacksonville continued to grow and expand on both sides of the St. Johns River.

Commercial needs in the 20th century dictated the deepening of the St. Johns. Docks and piers proliferated along the water’s edge, as well as seawalls to hold back the water from the growing city. This Eastward facing point is now the site of EverBank Field—the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Gator Bowl, and the annual Florida-Georgia rivalry game.

For more information and other animated maps: Florida Maps: Then & Now

Richard Keith Call Collection Now Online at Florida Memory

Florida Memory is excited to announce that the papers of Florida’s third and fifth territorial governor Richard Keith Call are now online and accessible for viewing. The collection was made available for digitization with the assistance of the Florida Historical Society, which holds the original documents.

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British Intrigue and the Events at Prospect Bluff

Although not part of the United States during the War of 1812, Florida witnessed its share of fighting between Spanish, British, American, African and Native American belligerents involved in the protracted conflict.

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