Sanford was once the celery capital of the world.
Walking the bricked downtown, I easily picture this environment rife with celery farms, with a small railroad running stalks and stalks to Orlando, Tampa and points beyond. Celery, actually, was Sanford’s second crop — at one point, this small(ish) city grew more than 140 varieties of citrus until a freeze in the winter of 1895 destroyed the crops. The town used the artesian wells literally popping up all over the place to turn from orange riches to green.
The celery legacy remains in town — Celery City Craft serves local brews, subdivisions have names like “Celery Park Estates” and “Celery Cove” and, in the not-so-distant past, the town crowned a celery king and queen, and the cermony surrounding the coronation included a Celery Masquerade Ball and the annual performance of Celery Soup. Ask a local as you stroll down East First Street and they may tell you they have heard rumors the celery celebrations may soon return.
Even if they don’t, the celery nuances of the town pervade its essence, like the base notes of a perfume. Sanford doesn’t make a big deal of its fibrous green heritage, but it is always there.
That’s not all, though. Sanford, a city I snobbishly mocked as a UCF undergrad, has changed since my early-'90s residence in neighboring O-town. And it took craft marshmallows to prove it. It started when Food & Drink Editor Meaghan Habuda told me she’d received a press release about craft marshmallows in Orlando and thought I’d want to write about them. My first reaction? Well, it wasn’t enthusiasm — I’m instinctively wary of anything “craft.” Less than a week later, though, I met a man in Clearwater at a talk about Florida road trips, and he raved about these “fantastic marshmallows” he’d eaten in Sanford. I relented and took a day trip to see what the fuss was about at Wondermade, whose website promised a “taste adventure.”
While I scoffed at the idea of gold-plated champagne-flavored marshmallows, I did fall a little in love with the coconut ones, which I’m picturing consuming as garnish for a mojito I sip poolside. And when I asked the CL staff to taste test the four flavors I brought back — coconut, gin, lavender and fireball — they didn’t exactly love the lavender, but the gin marshmallows led to some interesting ideas for Rice Krispie Treats.
Don’t think all Sanford has on offer is celery-related history and marshmallows, though — before stopping at Wondermade, we settle in for lunch. Sanford, so often thought of as Orlando’s little brother, has come into its own with eateries. And while newer restaurants like The Smiling Bison and The Tennessee Truffle beckon, it’s Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe that catches our eye; German food it is.
Over a lunch of Weisswurst, sauerkraut and warm German potato salad on a sidewalk table, we watch the world go by. And what a lovely world.
“It’s like the whole town went to sleep,” my husband says. He doesn’t mean that in a bad way; he says it after we eat a leisurely (and all-too-filling) lunch, then stroll over to Lake Monroe. Sanford’s downtown is wholly pleasant and infinitely more interesting than I’d snobbishly assumed as a college senior; I find myself wishing we had more time to spend gazing at the 3-D mural in front of Jeanine Taylor Folk Art; I want to sit and sip a chardonnay at the Breezeway, which is literally a breezeway with a brick patio, strings of lights and giant metal fish; I want to sit in the metal swings fronting the lake and watch the sailboats bob in the marina. But a storm beckons, though — this is, after all, summer in Florida —and so we turn from the lake and head back to the car, narrowly avoiding the fat raindrops French kissing the brick streets. We drive out of town via a side street to the downtown, where two-story frame homes hide between live oaks, occasionally peeping a white dormer or slate gray roof winking at you above the tree line.
When I moved back to Tampa Bay from Orlando, I’d lived in Orlando proper, Winter Park and Kissimmee. I missed the saltwater and realized I could never live inland. But oh, how Sanford makes me long to, once more, live in this part of the state. It’s a different kind of Florida dream — not one bathed in salt water at a pink and orange sunset, but a mossy, verdigris dream, swathed in clouds and smelling, vaguely, of coconut marshmallow.
Cathy Salustri is the arts + entertainment editor. Contact her here.