Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What is Jacksonville's cuisine?

This question has been at the front of my mind since I moved here at the beginning of the year. Whenever I travel or move to a new place, my first priority is always to seek out restaurants or products that capture a unique sense of place. Foods you can’t find anywhere else, or that teach you about local culture in a way no hour-long trip on a sightseeing bus ever could. Sometimes it’s easier than others. Like, when a city or region has an iconic dish or food product that you MUST seek out when you visit. Guinness in Ireland. Asado in Argentina. Parmigiano-Reggiano in Emilia-Romagna. Wagyu beef in Kobe. Lobster on the coast of Maine. Oftentimes I look to the unique, to products you can’t easily obtain anywhere else. Kangaroo and camel in Australia, crispy bugs in Thailand, roasted guinea pig in Peru, and all manner of exotic seafood in Japan come to mind.
Photo courtesy New York Times

Yet in this globalized world of ours, signature or iconic dishes rarely encompass everything there is to know or experience about a local or regional cuisine. Try as I may, it’s definitely not easy to get the full flavor of a place in one weekend, or even one month. In Jacksonville, this has proven a particularly slippery endeavor. One reason may be because we don’t really have a marketable, unique dish or ingredient that we can use to illustrate our food culture. Take our neighbors in Saint Augustine. They’ve capitalized on their Spanish heritage in order to create a local cuisine that’s easy to package and present to visitors to the Oldest City. You see tomato-based Minorcan clam chowder on menus across the city, always made with the datil pepper, which is grown on Saint Augustine’s soil – and nowhere else in the world. There are hot sauces made with that same pepper sold in little shops dotted all over town, and many markets and stores proudly announce the inclusion of the datil in their larder.
Minorcan clam chowder at O’Steen’s in Saint Augustine

To me, it seems that Jacksonville doesn’t yet possess this sense of pride in their history or their soil; or rather, it’s not centralized and it’s not marketed or presented well enough, and that makes it difficult to grasp. I’m sure Saint Augustine’s greater focus on tourism has a lot to do with their easily digestible presentation of Minorcan clam chowder and the datil pepper. But it’s only been recently that I’ve even been able to get a grasp on the produce we can grow here in Northeast Florida, and the fish that come directly from our shores. Most of our food and farmers markets import products from outside Northeast Florida. And while some pioneering restaurants are committed to serving locally farmed, raised, brewed, and fished products, I certainly wish we had more of it. As you can see, it’s not easy to pinpoint Jacksonville’s cuisine.

Over the last few months, I’ve realized there are many, many moving parts to Jacksonville’s food culture. We don’t have one signature or quintessential dish. But that’s okay. Together, all the moving parts tell a story of a diverse and vibrant food culture, not one that can be pigeonholed into one version of history or one type of produce or dish. I intend to explore the elements of Jacksonville cuisine in upcoming viCARIous posts.
Photo courtesy Scott Kirsner
The two main factors influencing our food culture are, in my mind, our geographic location, and the diverse makeup of our inhabitants.

When it comes to geography, it’s obvious that we’re located in the South. Does that mean we can claim barbecue as our own? We certainly do have a certain breed of mustard-based sauces and sauce-soaked slices of white bread that many of our barbecue joints seem to have in common.
Whole hawg at Mojo's Barbecue

And there’s a certain pride in soul food, and “down home” or “cracker” cuisine, with plenty of tasty joints serving up fried chicken, smothered pork chops, collard greens, and mac and cheese. Granted, in the minds of many, barbecue and soul food are more readily associated with other areas of the Deep South. But here in Jax, we’ve made them our own in a number of ways.

Fried chicken, greens, and mac n cheese at Justin’s City Place CafĂ©

We’re in Florida, so can we count ourselves part of the “Floribbean” culinary trend that incorporates ingredients and techniques from Caribbean and other Latino cuisines? There’s definitely some of that in Jax. We’re no Miami, that’s for sure, but you can see the influence in menus across the city and especially in the ethnic markets and shops around town.

Cheese pastries at Mi Pueblo Bakery

Since we’re located on the ocean, undoubtedly seafood has something to do with our unique local cuisine. All those seafood shacks and fish camps serving Mayport shrimp and smoked fish dips come to mind, as do fancier restaurants that serve locally-sourced catches. And how can we neglect to mention “swamp” fare? Gator and frogs’ legs and soft-shell crabs and catfish. That’s as Florida as you can get.

Cook at Singleton’s Seafood Shack

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we can’t forget our diverse inhabitants, all the ethnicities and religions and transplants that make up the fabric of our multicultural city. Vietnamese pho joints, Jewish delis, Caribbean eateries, Mexican grocery stores, Indian restaurants, and a plethora of Eastern European and Middle Eastern influences have all contributed – and continue to contribute – to shaping our dining scene.

Produce at Beach Boulevard Flea Market

I hope these posts help to paint a clearer picture of Jacksonville’s multifaceted food culture. And I hope they make you just as excited as I am about all of our food and restaurant options! Frankly, I’m sick of people complaining that Jacksonville doesn’t have much to offer in the way of local flavor, or ethnic food, or this, or that. You see that kind of talk all over sites like Yelp and Chowhound. It’s just not true, darnit! Yeah, maybe everything’s not concentrated in one walkable neighborhood like San Francisco’s Mission District or New York’s Little Italy, but hey, that’s the city we live in. You might have to drive, but you don’t really have to look that far, or that hard. So stop it with the negativity.

As proof, my first post addressing Jacksonville’s unique food culture will explore a street brimming with ethnic markets and restaurants. I'll then visit a variety of seemingly mundane eateries that are located right in my backyard. These eateries combine as unique a combination of local pride and ethnic flair as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Any guesses as to what they are? Stay tuned! And please, let me know what YOU think makes up Jacksonville’s cuisine.