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Swamp Cabbage


takomabaker
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My grandmother had a heart attack a little while ago. Although she is holding up quite well, I got "the call" from my mother informing me that I needed to haul my tush to my hometown to see her. Since plane tickets on such short notice are pretty expensive, I ended up driving from Maryland to Florida in one straight trip -- something I haven't done since I was in college in Virginia over fifteen years ago.

Hanging out with my grandmother, who is much better shape than I had been led to believe (or maybe it's just wishful thinking), I started asking her about cooking. My grandmother is an incredible Southern cook, a gene that was completely lost on my mother. I swear I've gotten food poisoning from my mother's cooking, but I have dreams about my grandmother's kitchen.

I've reached a point in my life where I've realized that if I'm going to continue to consume the food that I get truly nostalgic for, I'd better get off my butt and figure out how to cook it myself. I mean, as much as I hate the thought, my grandmother isn't going to be making me plates of collards and chicken fried steak my entire life. And the one thing I get most nostalgic for is swamp cabbage. I've taken French pastry courses and can make a croissant like no one's business, but I still can't make greens or swamp cabbage like my grandmother's. One my brothers, the silver-tongued one, took the opportunity to tell me when I was home and cooked for the family that my food tasted like it was "from a restaurant", and therefore was not as good as that made by other members of the family. I told him he was free to cook for himself if he didn't like it. But I get the point. Somewhere in my culinary quest I passed over what was closest to me and now I regret the hell out of it. I can make a mean cassoulet, but I can't chicken fry a damned thing.

When my great-grandmother was ill and I got "the call" 20 years ago, she had refused to eat anything for days. My grandmother sent me over to my great-aunt's house (who had been caring for my Great-grandma) with a huge, turquoise, Club Aluminum pot of swamp cabbage. I still remember the smell of it drifting up from the passenger's seat of my '74 Dodge Dart as I drove the long, dirt road to my Aunt Dot's. If Great-grandma was going to eat anything, this was it. I understand that now. If I had to choose a last meal, I wouldn't even have to think about it. It would be smoked mullet and swamp cabbage.

So, over some sweet tea and carrot cake at my grandmother's kitchen table, I started my inquiry about the elusive swamp cabbage. I had to be diplomatic. After all, she had just had a massive heart attack and I didn't want her to think I was more interested in swamp cabbage and the lack thereof in the event of her demise than I was in her health. I started out with her sweet tea, and my pathetic attempt at duplicating it and segued to swamp cabbage. She started "Well, first you have to cut down the cabbage palm...."

Twenty minutes later we are at the point where you strip off the hard outer part of the palm to get to the tender insides and how to tell what part is good to eat and what part isn't and I realize that it would snow in hell (or my hometown for that matter) before I made swamp cabbage from her directions in my suburban Washington DC bungalow.

I figured somewhere, someone MUST sell raw cabbage palm innards and I started a search, but I can't find it anywhere. I'm not talking about canned, fancy Hearts of Palm. I want raw cabbage palm cores. I want swamp cabbage with lots of pepper, some salt pork, and a little cider vinegar. I want a pot of the stuff that gave my great-grandmother the will to live. I started walking around my parents' property eye-balling cabbage palms and my mother told me I had better leave her landscaping alone. I drove out to a state park that is down the road from my childhood home one morning just to enjoy the scenery, but everywhere that I saw cabbage palms visions of steaming pots of swamp cabbage filled my head. Short of poaching on state land and ending up in a Florida penitentiary, there has to be a way for me to make swamp cabbage in Maryland.

My search continues. Are there any other swamp cabbage obsessives out there who have any insight? My grandmother told me that if I drove back down for my family reunion over Memorial Day weekend I could get all of the swamp cabbage that I could eat (hint hint), but I don't want to be at the mercy of second cousins twice removed or drive for 18 hours down I-95 for a swamp cabbage fix. There has to be a way. Just because I'm an expatriate cracker doesn't mean I have to eat like one!

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your post made me run to the kitchen and pull out my copy of Jo Manning's "Seasonal Florida: A Taste of Life in North Florida" cook book that was given to me by my brother who now lives in St. Aug. She has several receipts for "swamp cabbage" and even tells how to harvest it but no sources for finding the stuff.

I can not imagine who in Maryland would have swamp cabbage but you might try calling the Florida Department of Agriculture. The Georgia DoA publishes a "Market Bulletin" where fresh food (among other things) is advertised and Florida might have some thing similar or some one at the department might be able to tell you the best way to find what you want. Good Luck and keep us informed.

in loving memory of Mr. Squirt (1998-2004)--

the best cat ever.

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Jason, those of us what ain't fr/ north Florida area know it as "hearts of palm". I have had it fresh and believe me fresh is nothing like that canned stuff that we find at the neighbor hood super market.

As Jo Manning describes it, "Swamp cabbage is the ivory white heart of the local cabbage palm. Pick a tree about 8-10 feet tall and cut the top off about a foot below where the fronds start. Peel the fronds off until you get to the white heart."

I was really kind of surprised that John Edge has nothing about it in "Gracious Plenty".

in loving memory of Mr. Squirt (1998-2004)--

the best cat ever.

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Jason, those of us what ain't fr/ north Florida area know it as "hearts of palm".  I have had it fresh and believe me fresh is nothing like that canned stuff that we find at the neighbor hood super market. 

As Jo Manning describes it, "Swamp cabbage is the ivory white heart of the local cabbage palm.  Pick a  tree about 8-10 feet tall and cut the top off about a foot below where the fronds start. Peel the fronds off until you get to the white heart."

I was really kind of surprised that John Edge has nothing about it in "Gracious Plenty".

My entire life, swamp cabbage has always referred to finished pot of stewed cabbage palm hearts with lots of pepper and salt pork. However, in my research I have come to realize that some refer to the raw material, unstewed, as swamp cabbage as well. No matter what, it is very, very good.

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There's a lovely passage about swamp cabbage in "Cross Creek" by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling and other works). She was a stranger to the Florida swamps when she moved there for seclusion to work on her books.

She was an ardent cook, and presumably a great one, considering the level of her kitchen provisions and tools. And anyone who makes up a making of rolls to rise, puts them into a big old black dutch oven, carries them in her lap in a boat down an alligator-infested river, then alights to build a fire and nestle them in to bake for supper---THAT'S a dedicated cook.

She speaks of the swamp cabbage as a delicious, wonderful thing, but unattainable by her until she was counseled by a lifelong swamp dweller to "be ruthless" with trimming all the tougher layers away from the tender heart. It was so tempting to leave on too many layers, keeping quantity ahead of quality, but the toughness of the few remaining outer ones would spoil the whole pot, until she learned to seek the best part and discard the rest.

She would go out back with a machete, hack one down with several swipes of the blade, then spend a long time peeling back and chopping off layers, like seeking the crisp tenderness at the heart of a tough old onion.

I've always wanted to try it...we all buy those tinny cans of hearts of palm, and they're nice enough and a bit elegant on a salade composee' with a nice vinaigrette, and even have their place in that Southern everything-from-a-can combination of corn and English peas and French green beans, all Del Monte sealed and delivered into a syrupy sugar/vinegar sauce which renders them to a candied, toothaching "salad" recipe passed down through word of Hairdryer.

So go find some; go out in high boots and fell that tree into the mire--order it from off if you have to. Just trim it ruthlessly, letting the chips fall away, and cook it up into a dish to savor. You'll be cooking a memory of your own and passing on a tradition.

And write of your search and the finding. It's good to see another generation taking up the torch.

Edited by racheld (log)
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Oh & where are my manners?

Best wishes for a speedy recovery to your grand mother. Let us hope she is out wrestling the wild swamp cabbages in no time flat.

in loving memory of Mr. Squirt (1998-2004)--

the best cat ever.

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A company called Lizano Sales www.lizanosales.com has cans of HOP 21.00 per case, and glass jars, 24.00 per case...14 oz. sizes of both.

Guess if you wanted that much and liked the canned, you'd just pick them up at your local grocery, but that's what I found online. Was hoping for a frozen variety...seems it wouldn't be so "tinny" in taste as the canned.

Good luck in your search.

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Found it........well I mean I have a can of it in the cabinet but thats not the point right :blink:

http://www.propasa.co.cr/presentaciones_ingles.htm

costa rican heart of palm fresh or frozen.....so maybe you can try a really well stocked hispaic market locally too

Tracey

The great thing about barbeque is that when you get hungry 3 hours later....you can lick your fingers

Maxine

Avoid cutting yourself while slicing vegetables by getting someone else to hold them while you chop away.

"It is the government's fault, they've eaten everything."

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We utilize a purveyor in Orlando that is part of the FreshPoint produce conglomerate (sp?), supposedly, you can get whatever you want system wide, and they have purveyor outlets all over hte country, so try them. We get fresh hears of palm, and if you want, maybe we can setup a mail order thing for you (wink*) via Orlando if you can't get them up there.... maybe a trade for those shoft-shell crabs that are so expensive down here......

Tonyy13

Owner, Big Wheel Provisions

tony_adams@mac.com

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The cabbage palm is the state tree of Florida - and is a protected species in many (all?) counties of Florida. If you want to cut down a mature tree where I live - you'll need county permission - and you'll have to mitigate. If you want to pay about $300 - you can come to my house and cut one down :wink: .

There's an annual swamp cabbage festival in LaBelle Florida (southern middle part of the state) - where you can find the traditional dishes people are talking about.

As for the non-US imports - there's a lot of controversy about their production in terms of environmental and worker-protection concerns. Robyn

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  • 1 month later...

I haven't been keeping up with my swamp cabbage quest. My grandmother is back in the hospital. Her 87th birthday was yesterday so it wasn't much of a birthday present for her. So, the swamp cabbage quest is on the back burner, so to speak. But I appreciate all advice. Keep it coming, please...

And Robyn, I know about the state and county laws of Florida, and I know that the Miami environs have festivals that revolve around swamp cabbage and other cracker cuisine and culture. But if I mentioned Miami, festivals, or the official state law to any of my relatives I'd get a response that I could not repeat as a lady or in a public forum. When you've been in the same county since 1834 and your great-great grandfather is in the Florida state history books for shooting the first carpetbagger, you don't tend to file a lot of state permits to chop down a tree. I'm by no means advocating poaching, but my grandfather (God rest his soul) used to spend a lot of time in the Everglades. He was an avid hunter and naturalist, and could make a hell of a pot of swamp cabbage. I'll just leave it at that.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Well, I just got back from Florida. My grandmother passed away. I'm distraught.

Her 6 children and their spouses, 17 grandchildren and our spouses, and 7 great-grandchildren (too young for spouses) were all present. Ollie Mae Thelma Starling Anderson was laid to rest at our family plot in Englewood next to my grandfather, who preceded her by just over two years.

I wrote her eulogy and couldn't stop crying until it was finished. She was the granddaughter of a Florida Confederate Soldier (7th Manatee Reg) and the great granddaughter of a Revolutionary patriot. She was also the best cook I'll ever know and I'll miss her collards almost as much as I'll miss her.

I don't think I'll recover anytime soon, but when I do I think I'll make a meal in her honor, including swamp cabbage.

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Writing a eulogy for someone you love is one of the hardest, and one of the most wonderful, experiences you can ever have. You were the one chosen to form the words to tell of her spirit and her life and her priceless, one-of-a-kind persona which had and will have a forever effect on everyone who heard you speak of her.

What a glorious gift from the two of you to each other: Your remembrances and retellings and history-recounting of a remarkable, far-reaching life, and her living of it, in all the ways and days that you shared. One of the sweetest parts is that you will learn more and more of the lives that she touched, the people she helped, the children she nurtured and taught and fed and provided for, the strangers whose lives were made richer, if only for the moment of their meeting.

I've been privileged to do this for people I cared deeply about, and those are some of the greatest joys and most glorious gifts I've ever been given. I'm so sorry for your loss, and so glad for your relationship so worth remembering.

rachel

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Well, I just got back from Florida. My grandmother passed away. I'm distraught.

Her 6 children and their spouses, 17 grandchildren and our spouses, and 7 great-grandchildren (too young for spouses) were all present. Ollie Mae Thelma Starling Anderson was laid to rest at our family plot in Englewood next to my grandfather, who preceded her by just over two years.

I wrote her eulogy and couldn't stop crying until it was finished. She was the granddaughter of a Florida Confederate Soldier (7th Manatee Reg) and the great granddaughter of a Revolutionary patriot. She was also the best cook I'll ever know and I'll miss her collards almost as much as I'll miss her.

I don't think I'll recover anytime soon, but when I do I think I'll make a meal in her honor, including swamp cabbage.

My Dear Takomabaker,

Sincerest condolences to you--& your family--on the death of your grand mother. Words are little consolation at a time like this but know that thoughts are with you.

Please let us know when you plan to remember your grand mother with a meal including swamp cabbage and I propose that all of us prepare some in her memory along with you (unless you prefer for it to be a personal tribute of course). If you choose to share a favorite receipt it would be special.

Thomas

in loving memory of Mr. Squirt (1998-2004)--

the best cat ever.

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Please accept my condolences, as well.

In case you wish to make tribute to your grandmother in a culinary way, I'll let you know about this source that I found a couple of months ago when I was desperately looking for fresh hearts of palm. I found this site. I haven't yet gotten around to inquirying about ordering some; but nevertheless, thought I would let you know.

Take care.

Life is short; eat the cheese course first.

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THANK YOU for that amazing site. That's exactly what I'm looking for. A part of me is afraid to even try to make swamp cabbage. Everything that I have ever gotten homesick for and tried to duplicate from my grandmother's kitchen has been a dissapointment. My collards suck. That's all there is to it. They suck. I have actually thrown an entire pot of collards down the garbage disposal they suck so bad. My grandmother told me that you have to make sure that your collards are young and tender. And my sweet tea, although passable, is not even close to what I grew up on. What is so hard about Red Rose, sugar, and water? I've thought maybe the fact that my grandmother had a well and her water was sulfur water might have made a difference. So I'm thinking, should I just stick to my good memories or make an attempt at swamp cabbage?

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THANK YOU for that amazing site. That's exactly what I'm looking for. A part of me is afraid to even try to make swamp cabbage. Everything that I have ever gotten homesick for and tried to duplicate from my grandmother's kitchen has been a dissapointment. My collards suck. That's all there is to it. They suck. I have actually thrown an entire pot of collards down the garbage disposal they suck so bad. My grandmother told me that you have to make sure that your collards are young and tender. And my sweet tea, although passable, is not even close to what I grew up on. What is so hard about Red Rose, sugar, and water? I've thought maybe the fact that my grandmother had a well and her water was sulfur water might have made a difference. So I'm thinking, should I just stick to my good memories or make an attempt at swamp cabbage?

I'm not sure that my collards are as good as your grandmother's were - but she is right that it's best to get them young and tender. Since that is usually impossible at stores - second best is taking a mature head and discarding all the leaves that look like you could sole shoes with them. Just use the tender leaves in the middle. You wind up wasting about half - but collards are cheap in season. My second recommendation is to make collards only when there has been at least some cold weather in the area where your collards have been grown. I live in north Florida - our collards are usually local - and my first buy is usually for New Year's Day (we've usually had some cool weather by then). Collards are like oranges - they need some cool weather to "sweeten" them up. By the way - I can't think of one redeeming virtue of sulfur water. Robyn

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We had real bad sulphur water at a summer place. When we had guests who were in danger of overstaying, I'd run a couple loads of wash, extra rinse, and leave the lid up on the washer as it filled. Generally drove them right out.

Takomabaker, good luck on your swamp cabbage. Don't get discouraged if it takes a few tries, it'll be worth it. I only make my grandma's potato salad about once a year, but I've finally got it down, and now when I make it, I make a lot, usually for a big potluck, so when people say how good it is I can tell them about my grandma Jess.

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I grew up with sulfur water. My parents have a well too. I was always told that it was good for me. My mother swears that the reason she's 60 and has never had a cavity is because she grew up with it as well. But I can't figure out how something that smells like rotten eggs, turns bathtubs black, and rots lead pipes can be good for you. You can definitely tell when you walk into someone's home if they have sulfur water or "city water". Is sulfur water just a Florida thing, or does it exist in other parts of the South? I've never given it much thought.

Thanks for the collard advice, Robyn. I'm on my own if I want collards now (very sad). But it's definitely not the time of year to start that venture.

We had real bad sulphur water at a summer place. When we had guests who were in danger of overstaying, I'd run a couple loads of wash, extra rinse, and leave the lid up on the washer as it filled. Generally drove them right out.

Takomabaker, good luck on your swamp cabbage. Don't get discouraged if it takes a few tries, it'll be worth it. I only make my grandma's potato salad about once a year, but I've finally got it down, and now when I make it, I make a lot, usually for a big potluck, so when people say how good it is I can tell them about my grandma Jess.

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