A midnight trip for swamp cabbage

Published 7:09 pm Friday, January 20, 2017


I was in the car with Daddy not too long ago, and we got to talking about his family. Daddy grew up in Florida – the part with no beach and plenty of palmetto patches, alligators and rattlesnakes. I had always thought that Daddy’s grandmother was named Callie Rose, which I had always thought was the prettiest name ever.  I had heard many tales of his childhood adventures at her house, so to keep the conversation going, I said, “Daddy, your grandmother was Callie Rose, right?”

Daddy told me that Callie was indeed his grandmother, but Rose was the evil grandmother from the other side of the family, who got a boyfriend and had Daddy’s grandfather tossed into a mental institution, ran the family logging business into the ground and then left town, never to be heard from again.

I almost ran off the road when Daddy told me Grandma Callie’s actual name was California Oregon. Who names a kid California Oregon? And her mother was named for a state too! I can’t remember which one, but Rhode Island comes to mind for some reason.

Well, I’d learned something new, and the conversation went on and we started reminiscing about Grandpaw’s Swamp Cabbage. I hated visiting my grandparents in Florida; not because I didn’t love them, but because there is nothing more miserable for a bookish girl who hates hot weather and rattle snakes and chiggers, than being stuck in the middle of a palmetto patch for a week every June. I always spent the week groaning and promising to die of “heat frustration” and usually managing to drive everyone in the house nuts.

Swamp Cabbage (pronounced “swomp”) is the heart of a Sabal Palm, Florida’s state tree, and Grandpaw cooked it better than anyone else in the world! The texture was like white lima beans that have been cooked to mush, but it’s not really like anything else I’ve ever tasted. Grandpaw would go out and chop down a tree and “boot it out,” which meant taking all the outside, fibrous layers away until the white heart was freed, and then he chopped that up and cooked it with ham and lots of salt.

I looked forward to my swamp cabbage dinner all year long, and the anticipation kept me, and everyone who had to put up with me for those summer visits, sane. But one year, there was bad news. The trees had been put on a list and were protected. Chopping one down could carry a steep fine, and there would be no swamp cabbage.

I moped. I cried. I pouted. I begged. I bugged. I took to my bed. I stood behind people’s chairs and sighed dramatically. By Tuesday, Grandpaw’s eye had started twitching. He made a call, and then told Daddy and me to get into the car, because we were going for a drive. We drove and drove. Out into the heart of Old Florida our big old Oldsmobile rolled, until I recognized nothing. It got a little creepy. I started regretting all that whining, because I had obviously sent them over the edge and they were taking me out to the deep dark countryside to make me swim with the alligators.

Eventually, we saw an abandoned gas station off to the right, and Grandpaw told Daddy to pull into the parking lot, but not to turn off the engine. We sat with the car idling for a couple of minutes until another car pulled in and backed up so that the cars’ trunks were only a couple of feet apart. Grandpaw hopped out, and I watched, terrified, from the back seat as he approached the driver of the other car. He was tall and scruffy, and looked like he hated kids. They shook hands, and Grandpaw handed the other driver a folded stack of bills. Oh Lordy! They must not have had the heart to toss me in the alligator hole themselves, so this guy was going to do it for them! I promised Jesus that I would never whine again if He would just get me out of this mess! Daddy popped our trunk, and the other guy popped his, and I was getting ready to make a break for it when I saw Grandpaw and the other driver very quickly hoist a generous section of Sabo Palm from his car to ours. Both trunks were slammed shut and Grandpaw got back into our car and said, “Drive.”

That year’s swamp cabbage, flavored with danger and intrigue, was the best, I ever ate. We never spoke of the Swamp Cabbage Deal again, but I can’t think about Grandpaw without remembering it and that long scary ride. I’m just glad he put the swamp cabbage in the trunk and not me!