TAMPA — Restaurateur Michelle Baker's cellphone is blowing up with Facebook messages. A great-grandmother of a pioneering Florida Cracker cattle family has a hand-me-down recipe for squirrel stew to share, as well as stories about foodways that disappear with every generation.
Baker and her chef husband, Greg, became amateur culinary historians after they decided the menu for their upcoming restaurant in Seminole Heights, Fodder & Shine, would draw inspiration from the ingredients and cooking style of Florida's pioneers, from pre-Civil War to the Depression. Much of that cooking heritage was maintained by Florida Cracker cattle families who had to make the most of limited ingredients in a rugged land.
“It's a largely undocumented time,” Michelle Baker said. “We've been reaching out to people who have old lineage in Florida. Oral histories. Family cookbooks.”
Construction on Fodder began this week at the site of a former body shop and dry cleaner at 5910 N. Florida Ave., about a half-mile north of Hillsborough Avenue. The 8,400-square-foot, 116-seat restaurant and bar is expected to open in November.
It's the second restaurant for the Bakers, who in 2010 opened The Refinery in Seminole Heights. The restaurant, which features an eclectic blend of culinary styles with an emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients, earned national acclaim and has garnered Baker several James Beard award semifinal nominations as chef.
Baker originally considered following up The Refinery with an Asian street food restaurant but reconsidered after a conversation with celebrity chef Mario Batali, who visited their restaurant two years ago.
“He said it was a solid idea, but there was a tone in his voice,” Greg Baker said. “Soon after that, stoner Asian food took off everywhere around the country. I thought, 'Why do I want to be making fried rice tacos?'”
Florida heritage and history has been a passion for the couple, especially considering that Michelle Baker's family roots trace to the early 1900s in Plant City, and to the 1700s in the southern United States. The couple bought the Florida Avenue property for Fodder 16 months ago with the plan to celebrate the state's largely uncelebrated foodways.
“We're tired of people looking at Florida and not taking it seriously,” Greg Baker said. “It has changed tremendously throughout the years. There is some killer old-school Florida food.”
Cracker family cuisine was forged during a rugged time in the state's early history, following great upheaval after colonization by the Spanish and English and the three Seminole Wars.
While plantation culture in the Florida Panhandle saw the merging of African, Irish and Scottish foods, the cuisine of Cracker families — so named for the cracking whips used to herd cattle — relied on the animals living on and swimming around the land.
That heritage will give the Bakers the context to serve wood-roasted oysters with prickly pear, citrus and chiles, or smoked mullet roe with hard tack and pickled vegetables, as well as fried mullet with ham, grits and Seminole pumpkin.
Most Floridians have never heard of that Florida variety of the gourd before. The vine on which Seminole pumpkins grow is heat- and pest-resistant and sturdy enough to survive the climate of the Everglades. The deep-orange flesh is sweet and can be roasted like a butternut squash or pureed into a pie.
To keep that vegetable and other rare ingredients on the menu, the Bakers are working with local farmers they connected with through The Refinery to grow what they need. Other ingredients being grown specially for Fodder & Shine will include Florida broadleaf mustard greens, emerald okra, Florida speckled butter beans, Everglades tomatoes and high-bush eggplant. The Bakers also have agreements with cattle ranchers to raise the yellowhammer cattle described in Patrick Smith's book “A Land Remembered.” The cattle was once raised amid Florida's scrub land and driven across the state to Tampa for shipment by boat to Cuba.
Fodder & Shine will include a canning closet, so that harvests can be preserved for use during months when Florida temperatures make it difficult to farm. A drying table behind the restaurant will allow the restaurant to process fresh beans grown exclusively for the restaurant.
“We'll buy the whole field, can it and put it in the pantry like any other Florida Cracker family would have done,” Michelle Baker said.
One ingredient that keeps escaping the chef's ambition is coontie flour, used by Seminoles and early pioneers as a baking substitute for wheat flour. The fern-like plant takes three years to mature, with very little of the root being edible.
If processed incorrectly, the plant has toxic properties. The “black water” by-product resulting from the flour-making once was a Seminole ritual drink that caused hallucinations. For those and economic reasons, no one bothers to mass-produce coontie in modern times.
“Coontie flour is probably gonna be the death of me in terms of trying to find authentic ingredients for the restaurant,” the chef said.
Fodder & Shine, though, won't browbeat customers with history, Michelle Baker said. The idea is to create a casual restaurant where customers will feel relaxed eating modern versions of Florida comfort food and drinking classic cocktails and craft beers. Editors from Food & Wine, Garden & Gun and Southern Living magazines already are calling to say they're enticed by the restaurant's concept, Michelle Baker said.
“I really love Seminole Heights and want to develop this neighborhood,” she said. “This is not going to be anything like The Refinery.”