I landed in Orlando, Florida, right after the catastrophic Hurricane Irma had passed the state. Overlooking from the airplane, all seemed to be normal already. Slightly overcast but no wind or rain, the city felt perfectly normal; only patches of palm trees and pockets of wetland at the end of the sight reminded me this was the tropical Southeast.
I finally got to have a relaxed appreciation of this area after a few days of in-and-out of conferences, meetings, and dinners. Northeast from the city of Disney World and Universal Studios, the road led me through lush wide-leafed woods and humble residential houses. At this point, the impact of the hurricane started to show. Only few of the giant billboards along the roads were intact; debris piles of tree branches lined up; some houses still had sealed windows and doors, indicating the absence of their owners. To my comfort, my destination, the old town of St. Augustine was calm but vividly colorful. Spanish colonial architecture of various shades of bight colors, studded with tall cathedrals and stone monuments, revealed a charisma different from most American towns I had been too. After all, this was one of the earliest European settlements on the North American land.
Outlook of the Matanzas River on the roof of Castillo de San Marcos
A Canon pointing at the river
Castillo de San Marcos was a 17th-century masonry fort built at the shore of Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine, guarding the waterway that led to the Northern Florida. Over the past three hundred years, this fort had witnessed the richness of history on this land. Its ownership had been exchanged multiple times, between the rivalry of Spanish and English colonist armies in the early years, and similarly, between the Confederate States and United States during the American Civil War. Constructed with coquina, a sedimentary rock composed of ancient seashells and corals, which had been quarried locally, the fort’s extraordinary mechanical strength had successfully resisted firepower from these historic battles, and remained its original form today.
When I started to stroll on the broad roof of the fort, I realized that it had a simple, square outline. On each corner of the square, however, an arrow-head-shaped bastion protruded, each with a garita (sentry in Spanish) at the tip, silently boasting its defensive sharpness. At that moment, the fort felt like a colossus ancient beast in dormancy. The numerous marks of erosion on its grey skin testified to its age, but it felt firm, solemn, even a bit grim. After all, besides the battles it had endured, it eventually became a prison that claimed the freedom and lives of a large number of Native Americans towards the end of the 19th century. Landmarks like this are often times mesmerizing in many ways. On the one hand, they may be remarkable demonstrations of engineering excellence or artistic merit. But more often than we imagine, they expose a fragment of history that triggers our introspection.
Going south along the scenic Florida A1A toward my next destination was a pleasant drive. The wavy Atlantic and calm lagoons on the two sides of the road composed a dramatic contrast. Cars were still scarce shortly after the hurricane, and most of the vacation beach houses and resorts looked idle. Sporadic piles of debris added some ruggedness rare to tropical beaches. By the lagoons, however, joggers and fishers were already out enjoying a peaceful afternoon. It was difficult not to pull over and take a closer gaze at this scene in front of me. The clear, still water extended into clusters of emerald woods at the end of the sight; the humid, warm air brought slight saltiness that felt so strangely exciting to me; the sound of clashing waves echoed gently from far behind. This corner of the world became surreal.
And all led to absolute reclusiveness when I approached Canaveral National Seashore. This federally preserved and protected area includes a 15-mile-long barrier island, its adjacent wetlands, and thousands of species residing there. The Atlantic Ocean continued to fascinate me with its warm embrace, coarse sands, and colorful seashells. Thriving marsh plants weaved into blankets and rose like towers, rendering the land with prominent livelihood. Flocks of large shorebirds—egrets, storks, pelicans—were leisurely gliding over the sky. In water, families of endangered manatees surprised me many times while I as pondering upon the lagoon scenery. My stay was quick and short, and yet it relaxed and amazed me perfectly.
Looking at the ocean from the boardwalk
Lagoon view with manatees in water
When I stopped at the visitor center, the worker there explained that this was actually the first day that the seashore park reopened after the hurricane. Parts of the park were still closed due to the hurricane damage. “We are still in a rough shape.” She explained apologetically. I responded with a word of appreciation. So often we travel with the expectation of being entertained, and Orlando evokes none other than the paramount of such expectations. I was so glad I had chosen to visit these hidden gems to appreciate and celebrate something far more worthy.
My trip to the southern states left me with many wonderful culinary experiences. With the leftover North Carolina barbecue pork in my last post, I also tried to recreate Brunswick stew that I had enjoyed. It was a tomato-based soup with chunky meats and a medley of vegetables, which was delicious, hearty, and nutritious. Jamie Deen’s recipe seemed to resemble what I had eaten most closely, and the outcome of the imitation was satisfactory. By the way, it was the first time I used baby lima beans in cooking, and they were fabulous!
In a coastal state like Florida, I thought I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to check out the local seafood venues. Karen’s, a humble, self-serving eatery, presented a southern-style crab meal that was not to be missed. Crab legs cooked perfectly in spicy, buttery Cajun-Creole seasoning, were tender, juice, and so flavorful that I could not stop eating. In my kitchen, I used more meaty, but less tender Dungeness crab that was readily available in California, and married them with YouTuber Blissful Creation’s oven roasted crab legs recipe. Without quantified instructions from the video, I had to devise some of the details, but it was more fun that way, and again, the flavors were quite all right.
Crab legs at Karen’s
Crab legs from our kitchen
Recipe serves 4–6
3–4 lb cooked, refrigerated Dungeness crab, cleaned and separated into sections
1 lb small potatoes, halved
1 lb corn cobs, halved
4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled
1/3–1/2 cup butter, melted
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 TBSP parsley, minced
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 TBSP minced garlic
1 TBSP Cajun seasoning
1 TBSP Creole seasoning
In lieu of Cajun seasoning and Creole seasoning, I used the following mixture of seasonings: 1 tsp salt 1 tsp paprika 1/4 tsp ground black pepper 1/4 tsp ground white pepper 1/2 tsp garlic powder 1/2 tsp onion powder 1/2 tsp ground mustard 1/4 tsp dry thyme 1/4 tsp dry basil 1/4 tsp dry sage 1/4 tsp dry oregano 1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, depending on preference 1/2 tsp chili powder
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix butter, oil, and all seasonings in a bowl. Liberally brush the crab sections, potatoes, corn cobs, and eggs with the seasoned butter until they are completely covered. Place them in a large baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes.
3. Flip all the pieces, and apply more seasoned butter if needed. Return to oven to bake for another 10-15 minutes, until all pieces are thoroughly heated. Serve warm.
Fried gator bites with hush puppies, cheese grits, and collard green at Goodrich Seafood & Oyster House
Cheese grits from our kitchen
Last but not least, cheese grits were served multiple times both in North Carolina and in Florida. This rich, savory staple side dish added so much flavor and substance to the meals that I fell in love with it quickly. After I visited Canaveral, I stopped at Goodrich Seafood & Oyster House for a late lunch. The rustic, waterfront diner’s beautiful deck had been completely wrecked by the hurricane, but the quality of their food was not affected, nor was the hospitality of the owner, who sent me a bowlful of fish stew as I was waiting. The fried alligator I ended up ordering was a blast, but certainly something I cannot replicate easily. The remediation was to whip up some cheese grits to remind me of the bold, warm southern flavors. Paula Deen’s recipe turned out to be an even more flavorful version of what I had tasted. I used half the butter and cheese the recipe called for, also replaced 1/3 of the cheddar cheese with some nutty Gruyère. Next time I will probably use less chicken broth as well. —WZ