A customer in the farm stand where I worked held a pineapple, bottom up, to his ear and told me, “If it beeps, it’s ripe.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote in Cross Creek Cookery, “Food imaginatively and lovingly prepared, and eaten in good company, warms the being with something more than the mere intake of calories.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings packed up her sophisticated northern city life in 1928 and moved down to Florida to write. She drew stories from the people she met there in Cross Creek, a community out in “Big Scrub.” That’s where she wrote The Yearling, published in 1938.
In 1994 I needed a break from living in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, and I wanted to write, so I closed my catering business and drove to Southwest Florida for a winter’s working vacation. My daughter, 27, stood on the curb, waving goodbye. I drove off into the sunrise. “I’ll be back in a few months,” I said.
“You’re not gonna like that humidity,” my L.A. friends told me. I didn’t. Living on the Gulf coast in July felt like locking myself in a bathroom submerged in a tub full of steaming hot water. I stayed with my mother, who had a villa there. I got a job cashiering at a farm stand on 30 acres of strawberries, corn, tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, peppers, eggplant, squashes and melons. I loved the job, so I stayed much longer than I had foreseen – seven years, in fact.
My job had barely sprouted when the older, 60-something, string bean of a woman I cashiered with, a graying former model who’d grown up on a Michigan farm, declared to my boss, a tall, witty 40-something guy with strawberry blond hair who could imitate the geezers and snowbirds with perfect ripeness, “Hey, Brad, we’ve got ourselves a real city slicker here.”
I am called Carolina Gringo in Florida. I am a city slicker, right down to my shiny, black boots. So when I left the city and went to work on the farm, for a boss a good decade younger than I, I knew little about pulling fresh vegetables right out of the field, why the skin of Florida oranges is completely stuck to the pulp while that of California oranges peels right off (the former are juicier, therefore nearly impossible to peel), and I had yet to have a close encounter with a living, breathing watermelon of the Hindenburg variety.
Tree frogs on my toothbrush, snakes slithering among the potato display, hissing lizard fights, large, black mosquitoes that spring back when you slap them, Southerners who never do anything yet get everything done, all of these were new to my variety of cultivation in the cultures of Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, I adapted quickly to the porta john, brushed up on my Spanish so I could converse with my Mexican co-workers—did he really say he ate his horse for lunch?—and learned all about citrus and that if you whack an unshucked ear of corn against a table all the worms fly off.
–Samantha Mozart for Carolina Gringo