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Grown in the FLA

Top right: Long & Scott Farms in Zellwood grows many types of produce, including summer squash and sweet corn.
Published Oct. 16, 2012

It has been years since a cookbook celebrated the flavors of Florida, and quite possibly there's never been one that's put names and faces to the people who feed us. • Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs and Artisans (University Press of Florida) by a trio of Orlando authors tells the contemporary tale of Florida food through longtime agrarians, heirloom-growing newcomers and innovative South Beach chefs. Authors Heather McPherson, Orlando Sentinel food editor, and Pam Brandon and Katie Farmand, a mother-daughter team who run the magazine Edible Orlando, spent two years traveling the Sunshine State to collect stories and recipes. • The result is a book that reflects how traditional Florida farming coalesces with modern thinking about food production, including organic and small-producing farms. The stories drip with dedication, from the people who grow datil peppers in St. Augustine to panhandle dairy farmers to a forward-thinking neo-grower who's turned an industrial space near Miami International Airport into fields of herbs. • We recently caught up with one of the authors, Pam Brandon, who answered questions about the book via email as she flew to the Dominican Republic. The three authors will share more about their statewide food travels on Saturday at the 20th Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading.

Janet K. Keeler, Times food and travel editor

What was the genesis for Field to Feast?

The book started over a cup of coffee — Heather and I have been friends for more than 20 years and meet for a monthly gab and coffee. We often mused about projects we could work on together. When my daughter Katie and I launched Edible Orlando (she's the editor, I'm the managing editor), we began to pay more attention to local farmers and artisans, and Heather has followed the local dining movement for years as a food editor. Heather wrote and sent the proposal to University Press of Florida, and we were delighted when they said "yes!" A book was born.

We started an outline of the book two years ago, and mused that the local food movement would be a passing phase — but we dove into our research at just the right time.

The book morphed as it came to life. Part of our mission is connecting farmers with both consumers and chefs — every meal starts on a farm, where the farmer likely spends much more time than the cook creating what you are about to eat. It's a wonderful connection to make.

Who did what on the project? For instance, did one of you do the bulk of the writing? The recipe development? The testing?

We divided the state into north, central and south regions. Katie headed north, Heather took central (since it already is her "beat") and I headed south. It worked well; each of us drove thousands of miles on back roads and met farmers, artisans and chefs. We collected their stories and recipes, or developed recipes to showcase a crop. (Heather and I both admit that Katie surpasses our skills in recipe development.) For recipe testing, we turned to friends who are expert cooks to test every single recipe in a home kitchen. While we all have "regular" jobs, the book became a real passion as it came together. Most of the food shots were styled by Katie and shot in my kitchen and back yard. We wanted the book to have an organic feel.

The local food movement that has swept the country has seemed late coming to Florida. What's changed things?

The local food movement is taking hold all over the United States, a grassroots effort that quickly is becoming mainstream. I think we can thank grocers like Whole Foods for celebrating farmers plus the proliferation of farmers' markets and the fact that consumers are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. We want to know where our food comes from. Restaurants realize that diners will pay more for organic proteins and produce. Slow Food chapters are more visible. Magazines like Edible Orlando are preaching the gospel of local.

What surprised you most about Florida's bounty as you traveled around the state?

I think the diversity of all that's grown was the best surprise. From peanuts and olive trees in the Panhandle to exotic tropical fruits in South Florida, we found such abundance. And we love that we discovered families who have been farming for generations, and neo-agrarians who grow just to sell at a local farm market. And pretty much everything in between. And the stories! A doctor of psychology who's now growing tropicals in Homestead; a Swiss woman raising ducks in North Florida; a guy growing hydroponics with solar power in Ruskin. We loved the stories and wish we had more room.

In what ways did working on the book affect how you feel about Florida agriculture and/or the food scene?

For me, I left every farm with a bit of a soft spot for these folks who, without exception, work so hard every single day. I loved the story of Teena Borek, a tomato farmer in Homestead who lost her husband when they were both in their 20s and she went on to farm with her two young sons — she grows some of the best hydroponic tomatoes I've ever tasted. I adored the Swank family in Palm Beach County, who live in a humble manufactured home on the farm with their three young children and raise vegetables that are sold at some of the top restaurants in South Florida. Darrin delivers the produce right to the kitchen door, and Jodi is a fixture at the Palm Beach farm market. Truly, every farmer has a story worth sharing. When we started the book, I had no idea the passion and dedication I would find, and I left every farm with such gratitude — it was humbling, really, to meet these intelligent, hard-working men and women.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

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