Florida: Lake Okeechobee and Agriculture
After leaving the Coral Castle we drove through some very attractive nursery stock and truck farm country, known as the Redlands, with just a few intrusions by the fast-growing "Florida Estate." Building was booming everywhere I went on the mainland, so the farms may be not long for this world. Here's an old article from the Miami Herald. It's not going to get any better.
We stopped at Burr's Berry Farm and bought strawberries, tomatoes and a strawberry milkshake and then on north, skirting the edge of the Everglades and into Florida's cattle country.
We knew it was Florida's cattle country because I read it; we saw lots and lots of open fields and grass, but no cattle. The ranches appear to be huge; we passed multiple signs for the King Ranch on one side of the road and Star Ranch on the other, so maybe the cattle were just a long ways from the road. I read some very interesting things about Florida's beef and dairy industry, so the next time, I'll have to spend some time exploring them a bit more.
We ended up in South Bay just at the south end of Lake Okeechobee for lunch in a restaurant that will remain nameless. South Bay is kind of a grimy little town, 3,000 people, home to a prison and set in the midst of sugar cane and corn fields. The restaurant advertised "Home Cookin'." Our waitress was named "Moona" (I'm pretty sure) and answered the phone "C & W Tires." It wasn't the cleanest place I've ever been. Moona explained that they had had a flood the night before, of what she didn't say. But they had three of the grubbiest high chairs I have EVER seen, and not just at flood level either. Even the sugar packets were dirty. But the chopped pork barbecue was darn good and the price was right.
The highway looked like it skirted the lake very closely on the east side, so we decided to drive all the way up before heading back out to the coast. We expected nice views of this big, but shallow lake. It covers 730 square miles, is the second largest freshwater lake in the continental US and is 24' deep at its deepest. And, according to the AAA Guide, a 110-mile Florida National Scenic Trail winds along "...a levee which surrounds the entire lake to protect adjacent rich lands from overflow" (emphasis added). Wish we'd read that ahead of time. So we saw nothing of the lake unless we drove up and over the levee in the few places it was accessible. Didn't matter much, there wasn't anything to see. The lake is buff, slate, and steel with the occasional blue glint (I could have said muddy brown and a few shades of grey, but that would be mean). And there weren't any birds to look at either, even though there's a huge wildlife preserve on the lake somewhere.
Fortunately, there was an occasional interesting roadside attraction. In Chosen, we saw, but did not visit, the Islamic Center of the Glades. Well, if I were a Muslim in south-central Florida, Chosen might seem like a lucky place to live, I guess.
We drove down a road lined with Royal Palms for at least 3 miles. And there was a sign in front of a little store that listed what was available that day: Rabbits, Coons, Chicks, Greens, Produce, Catfish, Gator. Presumably you would buy these things to take home to eat, not as pets or commodities. Well, maybe some of each (think about the chicks; could be bait I guess). We did learn later that Lake Okeechobee is a major source of catfish for restaurants and quite a few people make a living providing them.
And while we're on the topic, I'll just tell about a dinner we had at Marsh Landing even though it's out of order, since we didn't have the dinner until the following week. Marsh Landing is in Fellsmere just off I-95 and apparently on the edge of a marsh. They advertise themselves as "A Florida Cracker Restaurant located in the Historic Fellsmere Estates Building" and the menu includes catfish, 'gator tail, frog legs, fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas, hush puppies and so forth. Sheila had been wanting to go there for a while and I was the excuse to convince her parents we should try it.
Actually we all had a great time. Sheila had the "Critter Platter," which was frog legs, catfish and alligator, so we got to sample some of all. The catfish and alligator were hard to tell apart being deep-fried fishy chunks, but the frog legs were easy, especially since they came complete with tiny toes. The owner said the catfish and alligator were farmed, but the frogs were caught either in the marsh or in Lake Okeechobee. She said the alligator is "pellet-fed," (as opposed to possum-fed maybe) and she thinks that makes it more tender. They still have to run it through a tenderizer twice and pound the heck out of it to make it edible, though.
The restaurant is decorated with things and junk, stuffed turkeys and bobcats and farm implements of the area, a gorgeous cypress wainscoting that used to be the ceiling, milk cans, washing pots, etc, etc, so that kept us entertained. Some of the best fun was our waitress, Nancy, who was also from Massachusetts so she and Sheila's parents had a good time talking and teasing about that. She was also very funny and charming. She started out by walking up to the table and asking, "Have I told you the good news yet?" "No," we said. "I'll be your server tonight! And my name is ..." a pause to check the back of her order pad, "... Nancy."
Nancy also called our attention to a deer head on the wall. "See that deer right there, see how his eyes look better than that other one next to him? I call that a Good-Eye Deer. And so is eating here."
So back to the trip. Sheila and I left Lake Okeechobee without much of a wrench and drove through the orange groves * to Vero Beach where Sheila and her parents are staying for the winter. Vero Beach is a beautiful town, very clean, very Florida, and we did a number of fun things there, so I'll tell you about them next.