Monday, February 28, 2011

The Swamp Cabbage Festival: La Belle, Florida

Never heard of swamp cabbage? Neither had I. It's the heart of the Sabal Palm, which happens to be the state tree of Florida. Swamp cabbage is also called polecat weed, stinking poke and skunk weed. Hungry yet? Swamp cabbage may also be one of the most misunderstood and disrespected foods in Florida, except in the town of La Belle where they've been celebrating the cabbage for almost fifty years now, with the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. 

La Belle is a world away from the reality with which I'm familiar, which
is why I was so intrigued by the Swamp Cabbage Festival — it was an opportunity to see another side of America. I was a little apprehensive at first, as I had never ventured into Florida's interior before. I imagined driving down a dirt road with the soundtrack of 'Deliverance' going through my head, and when I passed a convoy of vintage Ford automobiles, I honestly thought I was entering the 'Twilight Zone'. I couldn't have been more wrong. 

The La Belle Swamp Cabbage Festival is a small-town extravaganza where teenage girls compete to be crowned 'Miss Swamp Cabbage', where local church groups sing "Someday I hope to hold the hand of Jesus", and gentle town-folk place bets on the ever popular armadillo races. Six Armadillos, rustled from their cool nest of hay, are placed at the starting line, only to teeter down the 8-foot course, and God willing, at least one or two of the 'dillos' make it to the finish line without laying down midway, waddling back to the starting line or moving at all. I put my $2 bet on 'Twinkie' and to my great amazement, won! 

And of course there was food. Lots and lots of food. My first taste of stink weed came as a small cup of swamp cabbage fritters with a side of gator tail. Both were actually quite tasty. The swamp cabbage fritters were pleasantly sour and crunchy, much like fried dill pickle might taste. The gator tail was chewy, tasting a little bit like fish but with the texture of rabbit or beef, and in a spicier batter than the stinking poke. Alligator, being a tough meat, needs to be tenderized by being pounded or marinated to make it delectable. Being deep fried in a tasty batter helps too.

Other culinary highlights of the festival included boiled peanuts, mangrove honey, Indian Fried bread and 'gator' tacos. One 'Uber-Gourmand' I met skewered her swamp cabbage fritters on Palmetto Palm fronds, which she harvested, washed, trimmed by hand and then pre-froze to keep them in peak condition for the festival. When I mentioned that they looked great, she smiled and said "You bet. It took a long time, but you can't put a price on love." Ain't that the truth!