If there is such a thing as a historical cookbook, Terry Fortner, along with her sister Suzanne Thorp, has written it. Caladesi Cookbook: Recipes from a Florida Lifetime, 1895-1992 (University of Tampa Press) is their account of the extraordinary culinary life of their grandmother, Myrtle Scharrer Betz.
Betz died in 1992 at age 96, still holding the distinction of being the only person born on Caladesi Island, a pristine spit of land off the coast of northern Pinellas County. We know it today as one of the nation's most beautiful beaches, but when Betz was born it was called Hog Island.
Fortner lives in Ozona, not far from where her grandmother learned to catch and fry mullet, tend a garden year-round in brutal Florida weather and make all sorts of delicious dishes without the benefit of modern conveniences. Thorp is an opera singer in Germany, so Fortner remains the local keeper of the family history — and recipes.
The recipes in the book stay true to the way Betz wrote them, mostly in narrative style and with lots of tips folded in. The book paints a picture of the exciting, if not a little wild, life of a Florida pioneer. Big bugs and lots of humidity combined with a sea full of protein and an indomitable human spirit to match.
To the right is an excerpt titled "Terry's Memories" from the book. Fortner will be sharing more about her grandmother's life and the making of the cookbook Saturday at the 20th Tampa Bay Times Reading Festival.
Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor
Excerpt titled "Terry's Memories" from the Caladesi Cookbook
"When visiting Grandma Betz I was allowed to sit, if I would sit quietly, on a stool in the corner of her tiny galley style kitchen at Sutherland Bayou in Palm Harbor, Florida. It must have been entertaining to watch from that spot as I have distinct memories of sitting there and observing my Grandmother as she prepared our meals or washed up afterwards. I remember coming for a visit when I was finally big enough to see over the top of the counter into the kitchen sink without getting up on the stool. That was a big moment for me.
" . . . The first stove and oven I remember Myrtle using was fueled by kerosene, soon after that she had an electric stove and oven. She also did cooking on a wood grill out of doors and had a small tin smoke house on the south side of the house that she used to make the most delicious smoked mullet. She had the simplest of kitchens, reminiscent of a ship's galley. I had this realization later when I lived on board a sailboat for a month.
". . . Fresh caught fish was cleaned outside at a wooden table built behind the rain barrel. Myrtle would show us the insides of the fish, tell about the use of fins, gills, explain the uniqueness of a mullet gizzard, dissect and show us the parts of an eyeball (cornea, iris, lens, retina, vitreous humor). She modeled respect for life and for the food that was being prepared.
" (Siblings) David and Suzy became fishermen, and Grandma was very gracious about cooking whatever they caught, even if it was "shiners" or extremely small fish. Sutherland Bayou then had fiddler crabs, blue crab, horseshoe crabs, seahorse, flounder, mullet, catfish, mollusks and other fascinations, we spent hours of time swimming and playing there. At night we listened to the snuffling and splashing of bottle-nosed dolphins fishing on the incoming tide, and saw the beautiful flash of phosphorescence in the warm summer months. The harsh calls of herons from their rookeries in the mangrove stands across the bayou at Crystal Beach point (now Seaside) made it easy to imagine a time when animals, other than mankind, ruled the earth. At low tide there was a lot to explore on the mud flats. We joined in walking the flats with the birds that came to feed. By the late 1960s the bayou had became too polluted and there was not such a variety of sea life. The phosphorescence disappeared."