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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Fit for a king: Florida’s hearts of palm

I’m being nibbled to death by ducks. Or at least that’s the feeling. Actually, I’m being nibbled to death by the devils haunting the details. If you read this column regularly, you know that I recently returned from Eastern Europe. I still have laundry to do from that trip, but I’ve procrastinated on it while focusing instead on my next book, which was waiting here for copyediting when we got home. It is a history of Florida women and will be published by the University Press of Florida.
UPF, the Florida Commission on the Status of Women, and I agreed to this in 2007 – but it’s been a slow process. It’s true that I took time away to write two big books for national publishers, but the finished manuscript has sat inside some computer somewhere for more than a year. At last it has returned to me for copyediting.

The nature of that stage of professional publishing – especially with an academic press – is duck-nibbling, devilish details. Every page or two, a good editor who is just doing her job will ask a pesky question: Can you provide a date for the article in this citation note? Will you double check the spelling of this name; it was different back in Chapter Umpteen. Can you clarify what you mean by this term? And, of course, please do that without using much space.

Holding down the size of a book always is a problem for me. Because I love my subjects, I invariably write more than I know can be used. I depend on editors to cut, and I understand from a business point of view that cuts may be necessary. Probably even more than UPF in this case, I want a low price so that more people can buy the book. I want readers to know the fascinating history of the women who lived on our peninsula.

I also like to use sidebars as a way to include information that is an aside from the main text. Sidebars give a book visual appeal, too, and they work especially well for succinct attention to a particular woman or event or topic or (especially) long quotes from others. In fact, I like to flip through books with sidebars reading only them; it’s usually more interesting and attention-focusing. But it’s also true that the easiest way to shorten a book is to cut sidebars – and UPF has done that to a significant degree.

So I’m going to treat you to some of them. The first that ended up on the cutting room floor was from Chapter One, “A Time Before,” on Florida’s prehistoric women. I mentioned that cabbage palm was a staple of their diet – and the copyeditor assumed it was a fruit. That was when I realized that the senior editor had cut the sidebar on cabbage palm. For your edification and entertainment, here it is:


Although most of us use the word “tree” after “palm,” they are botanically not trees, but instead are very large grasses. When the cabbage palm is cut down, the center of its trunk is tender and edible. If served raw, it is called “hearts of palm;” if cooked, it is termed “swamp cabbage.”

Our modern population is much too large to encourage the cutting of cabbage palms for food, but back when there were many more palms than people, it was a Florida dietary staple. Once in a very great while, a piece of cabbage palm might be found at a contemporary roadside stand, especially in north Florida, but “hearts of palm” usually is available only as a canned product – and then it comes from rainforests in Latin America that are endangered. Thus the recipes below are more for information than actual use.

The first recipe was served at the historic Island Hotel on Cedar Key several decades ago. The town of Cedar Key, on the West Coast north of Tampa, is one of Florida’s oldest and played an important role during the Civil War. The recipe, with its unusual ingredient of ice cream, could not have been served then. It was created in the mid-twentieth century by the hotel’s owner, Bessie Gibbs. When her successor, Charles English, gave the recipe to the Tampa Tribune in the 1970s, he did not specify the amount of ingredients for the salad, but only for its dressing.


On a bed of lettuce, arrange canned hearts of palm and pineapple chunks with bits of crystallized ginger and dates. Just before serving, mix and pour this dressing:

1 cup vanilla ice cream

½ cup crunchy peanut butter

3 cups mayonnaise

green food coloring, if desired

Native Americans would not have had access to any of those ingredients except the hearts of palm. They probably ate it raw, but pioneer whites usually ate it warm and called it swamp cabbage.

Famous author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived at Cross Creek near Gainesville during the 1930s, wrote a fascinating cookbook called Cross Creek Cookery. Published by prestigious Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York, it came out in 1942, the first year of World War II. Food rationing soon would go into effect, but that would have little effect on Rawlings’ recipes: most of her ingredients came from her own farmyard or local waterways, and I don’t think that there is any recipe that calls for anything canned. The cookbook also serves as a travel guide to the Florida of that time, as Rawlings discussed the origins of the recipes she collected. It offers a tremendous variety of what we now call “localvore.”

Just under “Soups,” for instance, she has “Greek Gulf of Mexico Soup,” “Chef Huston’s Cream of Peanut Soup,” and “Florida Soft-Shell Turtle (Cooter Soup.” Although the novelist obviously was at home in the kitchen, she also credited her African-American employee with recipes such as “Idella’s Biscuits.” Under “Luncheon Dishes or, The Embroidery Club,” she offered “Idella’s Cheese Souffle.” References to “Dora” were to Rawlings’ cow, whose cream made excellent butter. There’s one such mention below.

But back to cabbage palm. Rawlings suggested fixing a “swamp cabbage salad” simply by soaking the palm heart in ice water for an hour. She added: “drain well and serve with French dressing or a tart mayonnaise. The flavor is much like chestnuts.” She wrote two recipes for the cooked version:


Boil [palm heart] slowly in as little water as possible, with several slices of white bacon. The bacon will probably provide sufficient salt. Pepper may be added if desired. If the palm heart has any tendency to bitterness, parboil for five minutes, drain off water, and cover with fresh boiling water. Otherwise cook, tightly covered, for forty-five minutes or until meltingly tender, and until most of the moisture has been absorbed.


Instead of white bacon, add two tablespoon’s of Dora’s butter and a half teaspoon of salt to sliced palm heart and cook in very little water until dry and thoroughly tender. Add one-half to one cup of Dora’s cream, heated, quantity according to amount of palm heart. Heat to simmering and serve at once. Prepared this way, heart of palm is fit for a king.

Please comment at doris@dweatherford.com

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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