I am a 7th generation Floridian (on my mom’s side), and as such I have accumulated an embarrassing mass of kitschy, Florida-themed stuff. A lot of it has come from friends who find it at yard sales and second-hand stores and think of me when they see it, but I must admit having a soft spot for old Florida memorabilia myself. I love the coveted “pre-Disney” era of Florida memorabilia, when the maps of Florida painted on ashtrays or embroidered onto tablecloths omit Orlando (which was an obscure little farming town until Mr. Walt Disney paid them a visit), and I’ve got a huge soft spot for anything alligator-themed.
So, I started displaying all of this stuff in my basement, which was originally built as a “mother-in-law” apartment in the 1980′s, but now serves as my guest room, overflow closet, and extra kitchen (everyone needs an extra kitchen). Once I found a home for it all, the Florida memorabilia collection started multiplying and sort of took over my basement. I moved all of my Florida-themed cookbooks onto a shelf in my basement, separate from the four Ikea shelves that hold the rest of my cookbook collection (yes, I have four Ikea shelves full of cookbooks). I get all kinds of grief from my friends and family over my Florida-themed basement. My youngest sister, Katy, refers to it as my “Tacky Florida Room”.
I was cleaning up my Tacky Florida Room last weekend (in anticipation of my mom’s looming summer visit) and while I took a short break with a Diet Coke, I started leafing through an old cookbook that has been a part of my life — well, all of my life — The Gasparilla Cookbook. It was a fixture in my paternal grandmother Victoria’s kitchen in her home on Clearwater Beach, where I spent just about every summer of my childhood. She only had about five cookbooks (Grandmother Victoria was not very domestic), but The Gasparilla Cookbook was among them. I cannot remember a time when my mother has not owned this cookbook, and it is on a shelf in her kitchen in Sarasota to this very day.
The Gasparilla Cookbook was originally published in 1961, and is still in publication by the Junior League of Tampa. It’s a treasure trove of recipes from the Tampa Bay area — some donated from some of Florida’s most historic restaurants, and some from the Junior League members themselves. There are two recipes that I distinctly remember my mother making quite often when I was a kid. The first is the Greek salad from the historic Louis Pappas Restaurant in Tarpon Springs, a Florida town with a rich Greek heritage. The second recipe from this book that was a regular feature in my mom’s kitchen is the Spanish Bean Soup from The Columbia Restaurant, another historic Florida restaurant which has now branched out all over the state. I absolutely love this soup, and I make it quite often in the middle of Washington D.C. winters. Forget about chicken soup, nothing cures a cold or makes me feel better than rich, saffron-scented broth loaded with beans, ham, potatoes and chorizo! Here’s the authentic recipe, but my mom usually left out the beef bone, and used a leftover ham roast to make the stock, adding the ham that she chopped off the bone into the soup with the chorizo.
But the shining star of this cookbook is not Spanish Bean Soup (although this soup is mighty good). It’s the Louis Pappas’ Famous Greek Salad recipe, printed on page 46 of the 1961 edition of the cookbook (which is the edition I own). My mom made this salad regularly when I was a kid, for boat picnics and potlucks and summer suppers. I have very happy memories of accompanying her to the commercial fishing docks to buy shrimp right off the shrimp boats for 88 cents a pound, complete with heads and feelers. Mom usually bought about 10 pounds at a time, and she boiled the shrimp in a huge kettle with a can of my dad’s beer, and then we sat at the kitchen table and cleaned the cooked shrimp for the salad and for snacking (the little beady, black eyes always used to freak me out). The original Louis Pappas’ Famous Greek Salad recipe calls for four shrimp for the entire salad, but putting that few shrimp on this salad is a crime against culinary nature. I load this salad down with shrimp!
I’m not sure how many more Gulf shrimp we are going to have in our future, thanks to the BP oil spill. I’ve spent most of my life on the Gulf of Mexico, from Pensacola to Sarasota, and seven generations of my family have worked as commercial fishermen, marine mechanics, and in the boat manufacturing industry for the 150 years that we have called Florida’s Gulf coast home — including my granddad, my dad, my brothers, and some of my cousins. I have so many happy memories of boating in the Gulf off of Pensacola, walking on Clearwater Beach with my paternal grandmother, Victoria (and stopping at The Palm Pavilion for french fries that were covered with as much sand as salt), high school outings with friends from Siesta Key to Fort Walton Beach, and family reunions on Manasota Key (at a park named after my great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Daniel “Jody” Anderson). My mom grew up on Midnight Pass on Siesta Key, and my parents were married in a little church on Siesta Key. I graduated from high school on Longboat Key, and I lived on Longboat Key when my family moved back to Sarasota from Pensacola (before they bought their current house and moved out to the Sarasota “boondocks”). It breaks my heart when I see the pictures of the oil-stained white sand covering the beaches that have meant so very much to me all of my life.
Now that I live in Washington D.C., I make this salad when I want to remember home, especially in the summer when Washington D.C. can give Southwest Florida a run for its money on the thermostat. And as I sat in my Tacky Florida Room basement surrounded by my alligators, license plates, and flamingos, reading The Gasparilla Cookbook, I realized how long it had been since I made this salad. Which, of course, means that it was due time to make it again. I went on a search for some Gulf shrimp, wondering how much longer I would be able to find real Gulf shrimp. I certainly hope we won’t lose them, and the rest of the bounty and beauty of my home, forever.
This really is The Best Salad Ever. From The Best Place Ever.
My family home. The beautiful Florida Gulf Coast.
I hope it stays that way.
Louis Pappas’ Famous Greek Salad
I use a lot more feta and shrimp than the recipe calls for.
For the potato salad:
6 boiling potatoes
1 small, finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup parsley
1/2 cup green onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup salad dressing or mayonaise (my mother uses a homemade Greek vinaigrette, but recently I started using this, from pastry chef David Lebovitz, with great success)
For the composed salad:
1 head of lettuce (iceberg or romaine. don’t get fancy here!)
3 cups potato salad (recipe above)
12 sprigs watercress (or roka leaves, if you can get them)
2 tomatoes, cut into 12 wedges (or halved cherry or grape tomatoes)
1 cucumber, peeled and cut lengthwise into 8 fingers
1 avocado (or “alligator pear”, if you use the Florida variety), cut into 8 wedges
4 portions of feta cheese (my feeling on Feta cheese is that more is better!)
1 green pepper, cut into 8 rings
4 slices beets, (the recipe calls for canned, but there are some great beets at area farmers’ markets right now!)
4 cooked, peeled shrimp (that’s what the recipe says, but get real! I usually load this salad down with shrimp — big ones!)
4 anchovy fillets (I am one of those weird people who likes anchovies, but leave them out if you must)
12 pitted Greek black olives
4 salonika peppers (pickled yellow banana peppers like the kind they slice put on subs)
4 radishes, cut into rosettes (I’ve been known to leave out the radishes)
very thinly sliced red onion slices, preferably on a mandoline (the original recipe calls for whole green onions, but I like thinly sliced red onion better)
vinaigrette made from garlic, lemon juice, mashed feta cheese, and olive oil (OR more of that lovely feta dressing from David Lebovitz mentioned above)
1. Boil potatoes in skins until soft but not falling apart.
2. Drain, cool, peel and cut potatoes into slices in a bowl.
3. Add remaining ingredients.
4. Fold in salad dressing and add salt and pepper if needed. Potato salad is best if made a day ahead.
1. Line a large platter or individual plates (depending on whether your are making one big salad, or 4 individual salads) with darker green outside salad leaves. Shred remaining lettuce.
2. Place 3 cups of potato salad in the middle of the platter.
3. Surround with shredded lettuce.
4. Arrange watercress or roka, tomato, cucumber, avocado, feta, green pepper, beets, shrimp, anchovies, black olives, radishes (if using), and sliced red onion decoratively around potato salad and over shredded lettuce.
5. Shake vinaigrette (or alternative dressing) and drizzle over salad. Sprinkle with oregano. (or, as I do sometimes, with a basil chiffonade instead of oregano.)