Recently I was invited to a friend’s place in north Englewood to hang out with him in the cook shed behind his house. The shed has a tin roof with cupola design to let the smoke out from the fire pit under it. It has a grate that hangs over the fire, which he uses to smoke mullet and cook oysters — but we weren’t cooking seafood. We were going to make an old Florida traditional food: Swamp cabbage.
I’m sure some of you are wondering what in the heck swamp cabbage is and why anyone would want to eat it. If you’re a native to Florida, then you should understand. For the rest of you, consider this an education.
Swamp cabbage is a local term for heart of palm — specifically, the heart of one species, the cabbage or sabal palm. This plant is one of 11 native Florida palms. While all are edible, only the cabbage palm is good.
Swamp cabbage has been cooked in Florida for at least hundreds and probably thousands of years. I found some notes online from Capt. Hugh Young, who was Andrew Jackson’s topographical engineer. He made remarks about there being an abundance of cabbage palmettos around the Suwannee River in 1818. He wrote about them rising over 40 feet in the sky and having a top that looked like a pineapple to him. The stems and leaves reminded him of the palmettos that were growing on the ground but without the prickles. Capt. Young also remarked about how in time of scarcity the natives live on it.
As more settlers discovered this source of food, they took note of how the natives were preparing it and also began to experiment on their own. It was either eaten raw or boiled with a helping of wild game.
Swamp cabbage is so celebrated that festivals are held every year to celebrate this important piece of Cracker heritage. LaBelle, a town about 20 miles east of Fort Myers, holds a swamp cabbage festival in February. The Florida Forest Festival in Perry always has several vendors offering their versions of swamp cabbage.
My friend and I were talking over a beer one day about how to cook swamp cabbage. He and I discussed the ways we were taught, and our recipes were different but we agreed that they both sounded good. He told me about a friend of his that asked him if he would teach him how to make swamp cabbage. My friend said, “Yeah, but you’re going to put some work in and come with me to cut the cabbage and clean it, then cook it and eat it.” His friend never took him up on his offer so I volunteered to take his place.
Well, time went by I never got around to trying to make a plan to go cut cabbage with him. Then one day I got a text from him that was just a photo of a few cabbage palm trunks in the back of his ranch truck. I responded with one word: “Sweet.”
Cutting a cabbage kills the palm. The part we eat is actually the bud from which new leaves grow, and removing it means the death of the plant. Some other species, such as the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), produce numerous plantlets called suckers. Each sucker has a bud that can be harvested without killing the plant. Peach palm is used for commercial heart of palm production, and that’s why canned heart of palm tastes nothing like real Florida swamp cabbage.
In 1953, the Florida legislature make the sabal palm the official state tree (despite the fact that botanically, palms aren’t trees at all). Despite this designation, state law does not prevent you cutting cabbage palms on your own legally owned property. However, your county, municipality, or even a homeowners’ association can prohibit cutting cabbage palms.
When my friend and I were talking about when and where to cut cabbage, he talked about not wanting to cut palms too close or too far away from water on his property. I’d never considered that. I have always just gone on our property and found one that was the right height and cut it down. He also taught me that I’ve been cutting them too tall and doing more work than I needed to.
While at his cook shad, we began to clean the cabbage palms and he showed me that if you just count down six or seven fronds and cut there, you will find the heart. He sharpened his hatchet and began chopping the bottom fronds off and stripping them away until he found the rings inside the heart. We both tried a piece of it raw and thought it was a bit fibrous and bitter, so a couple more layers or “boots” had to be removed.
After cleaning the cabbages, he got out a sharp knife and began to slice the cabbage palm thin over a pot of ice water. While he was doing that, I was chopping up some sweet onions and garlic. I also diced up a hunk of salt pork and began to render it in a thick-bottomed stock pot.
After the salt pork was rendered, we added the onions and garlic. Then he grabbed a large slotted spoon and started scooping the cabbage palm slices out of the ice water and tossing them into the stock pot along with some of the ice. This is where our family’s recipe differs. I was taught boil the same ingredients until tender. However, he used more of a steaming method, with lower heat and less water.
While waiting for the cabbage to cook, we enjoyed a couple a Florida stone crab claws and a cold beer. Once the cabbage was done, we shared a couple bowls of his recipe. It was outstanding — truly the flavor of Old Florida.