Grandma's recipes are precious things. If we are lucky, she wrote them down (maybe at our request) and we've tucked them away in a recipe box or scanned and saved them on a computer. If we aren't so fortunate, we must rely on memory to make the world's best key lime pie. • Those old recipes represent our childhoods and family legacies, perhaps illustrating ethnic histories or odd leanings for dishes that could surely only be appreciated inside the clan. • One bite of her homemade bread made all these years later rockets us back to Grandma's kitchen, the warm, pillowy loaves hitting the tripwire of recollection.
But what if your grandmother "lived one of the most extraordinary lives in Florida history"? Would her way of life, and more specifically her way of cooking, belong to everyone? That's how Gary Mormino, recently retired history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, describes Myrtle Scharrer Betz in the foreword of Caladesi Cookbook: Recipes From a Florida Lifetime, 1895-1992 (University of Tampa Press). Compiled by granddaughters Terry Fortner and Suzanne Thorp, the cookbook is part family history and part blueprint for a Pinellas County pioneer life. And for those of us who dwell in the age of food blogs and 30-minute meals, it's a reminder that good cooking doesn't require fancy cookware and culinary degrees.
"Myrtle's story is bigger than our family," Fortner says. We are sitting in her dining room surrounded by handwritten recipes, vintage mixing bowls and hand beaters, and a deep-dish peach cobbler pie that Fortner has made as per the instructions her grandmother left. "Her story belongs to all of Florida."
A bowl of sectioned citrus fruit, tinged red from sliced strawberries, sits nearby. Fortner is a whiz at sectioning fruit, thanks to lessons from her grandmother. She can make bread and greens like Betz did, too, and the chickens clucking in the back yard don't seem to be part of the modern-day urban farm movement, but rather an honest bid to have fresh eggs.
There's little doubt that Myrtle Betz, who died in 1992 at age 96, would approve.
A historic life
As far as anyone knows, Myrtle Scharrer was the only person born on Caladesi Island, famed today for its white sugar sand beaches. Born in 1895, Betz grew up on what was then called Hog Island among the bugs and brutal humidity. There was no indoor plumbing, electricity or refrigeration. She rowed alone across the sound to Dunedin for school, sometimes waking by 3 a.m. to do chores before the bell rang. In 1921 she witnessed the hurricane that tore the island in two to make what have become Caladesi and Honeymoon islands.
But despite the hardships — an only child raised by her father, Harry Scharrer, after her mother died when she was 7 — there was plenty to eat thanks to the protein-packed Gulf of Mexico and watery mangroves (Mullet! Stone crab! Pompano!) and the livestock and garden that she and her father tended. The garden was a year-round cornucopia, requiring extra care in the punishing summer months, the season when most modern tenders give up.
Her passion was cooking, and she learned early how to dress chickens and catch and gut fish. Most of the cooking was done outdoors. Even later in life, when modern conveniences came her way, she still enjoyed preparing food in the fresh air.
"She loved to cook and always had a lot of hungry people around who wanted to eat," Fortner says. "She woke up dreaming recipes." Among some of her specialties were sea mustard, coquina broth, fish chowder and roasted oysters. Her father's Swiss heritage influenced her cooking, her hamburgers resembling German frikadellen packed with onion and bread crumbs.
Myrtle Betz was nearly 40 when she moved to the mainland — Dunedin — with her husband and young daughter; her father died just months later. In the following years, the land was sold and eventually became part of the state park that exists today.
In her lifetime — nearly all of which was lived in northern Pinellas County except a brief stint in Miami and some summers in New Mexico — Betz was a bit of a celebrity. The girl who lived on the island provided endless fascination for "city folk." The poet Carl Sandburg visited them on the island, and her father received a mail subscription to the Atlanta Constitution, a gift from the editor.
When Betz was 87, she wrote Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise: The Story of Caladesi Island, also published by University of Tampa Press and still in circulation. It's an unflinching and beautifully written book about her experiences on the island and afterward.
In Caladesi Cookbook, and while sitting at the table of her home, Fortner notes and marvels at her grandmother's authenticity and accomplishments. "She was totally acclimated to living in Florida, and her way of life was sensible and sustainable," Fortner writes. A painting of Betz by Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still hangs on the living room wall. It is also the cover of the book. Another of his paintings is the cover of Betz's book.
From the front yard of the Fortner cottage, a visitor can see Honeymoon Island at the end of the street and across the water. Caladesi, though out of sight, is to the south. Betz's history and all these memories about good cooking were born just miles from here.
"Myrtle lived a life that can't be duplicated," Fortner says.
The birth of a new book
Fortner, 59, is the keeper of the family history and a lover of old stories, not to mention a good cook. She is on the board of the Palm Harbor Historical Society and is a former past president, and she often speaks publicly about her grandmother and Pinellas County pioneer life. Like lots of longtime Pinellas residents, she pronounces the county's name PINE-ellis, not PIN-ellis, like us short-timers. She grew up in Gainesville, the family visiting the gulf and her grandmother a lot through the 1950s and '60s, and Fortner moved here when she was just out of college. She's lived in the pine-paneled Ozona cottage since 1983 with her husband, Bob Fortner, the pastor of Unity Church of Palm Harbor. They have two adult children.
She had been thinking about compiling her grandmother's recipes for about 15 years, and it took her and her sister three years to complete the book. The work has been mostly long distance because Thorp, 57, lives in Cologne, Germany and she is the lead soprano at the Bonn Cathedral.
They say they "compiled" rather than "wrote" the book because the recipes are printed true to Betz's originals, and most are not structured in today's common form: ingredient list followed by instructions. They are written narrative style with lots of tips embedded. In the book, the sisters share memories of their grandmother, slightly different and influenced by their adult personalities.
And Fortner has more than memories to sustain her in her small but very workable kitchen. She has, and uses, some of Myrtle Betz's kitchenware. The most precious, other than those hand-written recipes?
A set of well-seasoned, cast-iron skillets that have fried some mighty fine local fish over the last six decades. Vessels to channel the legacy of Myrtle Betz, for sure.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.