Set aside the fast food novelty and newfangled fine dining pomp for a moment. Even as consumers and writers begin to take local produce and heirloom varieties seriously, local Florida food traditions often go unappreciated. Some of our local culinary treasures have languished in relative obscurity for years. It's time to give proper due to those traditions that give Bay area cuisine a sense of place.
The lack of reverence for Florida foodways has something to do with the fact that everyone here is from someplace else. When newcomers arrive, they long for the comfort foods from back home. New Yorkers want to know where to find the same pizza they grew up with. Chicagoans search for hot dogs, and folks from Philly long for cheesesteaks.
This sentimental longing for delicacies from the old country is so pervasive that I coined a term for it: the "Conquistador complex," after the Spanish warriors who came to Florida in the 1500s to steal gold. They ignored Florida's bounty of seafood and produce, and instead dreamed of the brown bread, olive oil, wine and lamb of home. As the missionaries discovered in their hacienda plantations, none of these Old World products could be readily produced in Florida's subtropical climate. And Florida's restaurateurs never seem able to fulfill the expectations of more modern transplants in search of hometown nostalgia.
Florida's food culture is unfairly derided and has few public defenders. Most critics and chefs aren't fond of singing the praises of Florida's humble creations and adaptations, like smoked mullet, Cuban sandwiches, crab enchilado (chilau) over spaghetti, Minorcan clam chowder with datil chili peppers, Greek salads, deviled crabs, oyster stew, Spanish bean soup and Key Lime pie.
As a result, the Bay area's food culture is dying off. In the last decade, Tampa has lost many iconic dining landmarks: Seabreeze, Goody Goody, Palios Bros. Chicken, Snack City and Valencia Gardens, to name a few. Tragic, but those closings can be reminders that we need to appreciate our distinctive local food heritage. In this column, I will explore authentic local dishes, recipes, restaurants and professionals that make the cuisine of the Bay area unique.
That's not to say that I'll ignore more recent developments in the local food scene. Just as there are no distinctly American or Florida foods, there are no true Floridians, either. So the Vietnamese pho merchant or Mexican taco truck is no less a part of our evolving culinary heritage than soft shell crabs. They're just the latest arrivals to the Florida feast.
Hot as the Devil Crabs
I can't think of a more appropriate place to start than the devil crab, one of Tampa's original culinary creations. The snack first appeared around 1920 as street food in Tampa, concocted when blue crab was plentiful. Heat from red pepper flakes gave the rolls their infernal name. When made correctly, they make me swoon. They're also very labor intensive, and few people bother anymore.
Palm River resident Donna Richards remembers the first day she made a devil crab close to 20 years ago. After marrying her childhood sweetheart Danny, a commercial fisherman, she kept the books at the Seabreeze seafood shop, her in-laws' business. One day, her stoic father-in-law Robert Richards enlisted her to work in the neighboring Seabreeze Restaurant, which usually sold two or three thousand devil crabs a day. In order to keep pace with demand, Donna had to learn to make crab rolls quickly, with perfectionist Robert making regular inspections of her work. He'd grab an uncooked roll, cut it open and scrutinize its dimensions, especially concerned that the crust was not too thick or too thin.
That day, Donna joined a long line of Seabreeze devil crab rollers. Victor Licata lorded over his own devil crabs after opening the shanty Seabreeze Restaurant on the 22nd Street Causeway in 1925 or so. His daughters rolled the crabs at home to be served in the restaurant; diners could not get enough of the spicy, plump croquettes. Some debate the origins of the rolls, tracing them to Spain, Cuba or Italy, but they are likely a little of all three, one of Tampa's fusion foods.
In 1992, the Licata family sold the Seabreeze Restaurant to fishermen Robert and Helen Richards, who had run the neighboring seafood shop since the 1960s. Seabreeze devil crabs were so popular, the restaurant sold about 750,000 rolls annually in the 1990s. On any given day, Donna and her fellow rollers made about 500 rolls each.
The Richards Family sold the property in 2002, having closed the restaurant the year before, but people are still looking for those classic devil crabs. I got to know the Richardses while we worked on the Seabreeze by the Bay Cookbook together in 2002. As co-author, I still get scores of e-mails from people frantically looking for the recipe.
Few would go through the effort or expense to make their own if they knew that the Richardses are once again producing and selling the classic Seabreeze devil crabs. Although they lease a catering space for commercial production and freezing of the classic rolls, I recently visited my old friends to watch them cook at home.
Restless in his retirement, Robert makes the crab sauce for Donna, who rolls, packages and sells the rolls. Robert begins with a sofrito of olive oil, onion, bell pepper, garlic and red pepper flakes, then adds tomato puree, tomato paste and oregano. The sauce comes out thick, designed to permeate the crab and help bind it. Some of the cooked onions and peppers are combined with bread crumbs to form the crust. Once the crab is "painted" with ample sauce, it's ready for rolling.
When rolling, Donna first "washes" her hands in dry bread crumbs to "season" them. She then takes a mashed disc of dough and forms it around the crab meat. Unlike most Seabreeze rollers, she uses extra dough, pinching the excess off at the top end of the croquette. A few gentle rolls between her hands with some extra bread crumbs and the devil crab is ready for frying or freezing.
Robert still chides Donna about making her rolls too big. "There's only one way I know how to make devil crabs — the way that he showed me," she says. Her mother-in-law Helen reminds her that the crabs used to be much smaller in the 1950s. Clearly, Donna can't please everyone in her family, but Seabreeze fans couldn't be happier, often ordering dozens at a time. If she can find the space, she might even open a new, simpler Seabreeze Restaurant, stripping the old menu to the essentials.
The volume is high enough that Donna has even recruited a new crab roller, her friend Sandy Brown. She caught on in no time, turning out beautiful rolls that passed Robert's careful inspections, though he still chides Donna. She may make an extra spicy version, too, which is music to my ears. She'd never hear the end of it then.
Where to find it: Seabreeze Devil Crabs, 813-623-6250. One dozen devil crabs cost $27, and 20 minis cost $30; classic Seabreeze By the Bay cookbooks cost $15. Free delivery available for a limited range. Find the complete Seabreeze devil crab recipe online at cltampa.com/food.
Stay tuned for more explorations of Tampa Bays food culture. If you want to share tips or tales of Florida food, write to [email protected]