Florida Thanksgiving Traditions

(Immokalee Bulletin/Danika J. Hopper) Hopper’s 3-year-old daughter harvesting Florida cranberry leaves and calyces.

Boiled peanuts, hoecakes, corn pone, and fried catfish- these are the dishes I hear the elder Floridians discussing while sitting around the table as they reminisce about their good ol’ days. While we sometimes still serve up fried gator tail, roasted bananas drizzled with cane syrup, and swamp cabbage casserole, long forgotten are the days of serving up dishes like tortoise stew and sand crab chowder. I, for one, admit that I am fairly thankful for that. But one traditional thing, a favorite of mine, that hasn’t left our Thanksgiving table, is Florida cranberry tea.

Hibiscus sabdariffa, or Roselle, is a shrub belonging to the Malvaceae family. This heirloom plant, found around the world, is also known as red sorrel, Jamaican sorrel, and Florida cranberry. Easily identified, with its bright fuchsia stems, and flowers that resemble hibiscus blossoms, every node produces a calyx. Both the leaves and calyces are edible. Back in the old days, many Florida cracker homesteads cultivated Florida cranberry plants in their backyards, as it was thought to remedy common ailments like toothaches, urinary tract infections, menstrual pain, indigestion, colds, and even hangovers. Please note, I don’t have any sort of scientific proof that any of that is at all true. Anyhow, it was harvested and used either fresh or dried, in salads, to make jellies or jams, and even to brew a traditional beverage during the holiday season.

My family actually makes Florida cranberry tea year-round, but for me it has a special place during Thanksgiving, as the plants are in heavy bloom this time of year. My daughter and I go out and fill up our baskets as soon as we spot the calyces. They make a beautiful, magenta colored tea with a deliciously tart, cranberry-esque flavor. Most of us prefer it chilled, served over ice- but, depending on the weather, it is also lovey served as a hot, sipping tea.

To make Florida cranberry tea, we start by bringing two quarts of water to a boil, adding 1 cup of fresh or dried roselle, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 tsp orange or tangerine zest, and allow to steep for about ten minutes. Strain the brew, and sweeten to taste with orange blossom honey or for an even more old-time flavor, add cane syrup. Serve it hot or chilled, whichever you prefer.

Let me know what you think, if you try your hand at making some Florida cranberry tea send me an email.

Warm wishes to everyone this holiday season as there is much to be thankful for!

Danika can be reached at dhopper@newszap.com

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