Stories from middle America

Florida | COOP

Endless scorching asphalt, blistering sun, massive crowds, and pretty pink princess overload. String bikinis, red Solo cups, wet t-shirt contests, and well-tanned hard bodies. Golf carts, cabana wear, shuffleboard, and retirement communities.

Growing up, these were the things I thought of when someone mentioned Florida. None of them sounded the least bit appealing to me. I wasn’t a “Disney kid” so the theme park was out. MTV Spring Break cured any desire I might have had to enjoy the sun and surf of South Florida, and my grandparents still lived in Nebraska with no plans to begin shuffle board lessons or slip on a pair of white orthopedic shoes.

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I thought never in a million years would I have any reason to go to Florida. That is, until I did; I met a guy. I know, right? It always starts with a guy, doesn’t it? This guy I speak of is my husband, Scott. He was born and raised in the Sunshine State, but has lived in Omaha for the last decade. He introduced me to Florida, and I could not have asked for a better guide. Scott grew up in the Tampa area, which is situated on the west coast of Florida, on Tampa Bay, near the Gulf of Mexico. He still has family in the area, so we enjoy visiting when we have the opportunity. And I have to say, for holding as many preconceived ideas as I did, I was surprised by how much I love it there.

Because of Scott and his connection to Florida, I have learned how to properly crack open crab legs, how to float in the salty water of the Gulf of Mexico, and how to master the art of relaxing. Floridians know how to take it easy; from days spent reading by the water, to a leisurely ride on a beach cruiser bicycle. And the food. I have a new appreciation for all kinds of seafood; something I wasn’t too familiar with as a Nebraskan. Char-grilled octopus, fresh oysters, blackened grouper, and conch ceviche. They are all wonderful, and perfect representations of what is so great about Florida.

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My best friend of 19 years joined me on a recent trip to Florida; I was off for Spring Break and needed to enjoy some sunny weather. Sophia had never visited Florida and I wanted her to experience the sunshine, sandy beaches, delicious seafood, and friendly people that keep me coming back. Scott has always been such a great tour guide and I wanted to pass that along to her.

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We ate Cuban food for lunch in Ybor City at the legendary Columbia Restaurant, stumbled across a beach wedding at sunset, ate blackened grouper and sang karaoke to a room full of strangers at Friendly Tavern, visited the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, and toured the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Redington Shores. We enjoyed brunch on the patio of the beautiful Don CeSar Hotel and ate char-broiled octopus at Keegan’s Seafood Grille. And we did all of our traveling in the only appropriate rental car: a yellow Volkswagen Beetle Convertible – it’s Florida, after all, isn’t it?

As a girl from the Midwest, I feel like I’m in a wonderful foreign land when I visit Florida; an oasis full of the most delicious seafood and coastal flavors anyone could ask for. If you think you’re not a fan of seafood, I urge you to get on the next plane to Florida and introduce yourself to the briny sweetness of fresh Gulf oysters. If you don’t like “fishy” fish, don’t fret; Florida grouper has you covered. Want to sip a beachy drink or cold beer while dipping sweet crab legs into drawn butter? Florida is the only choice. Interested in the best surf and turf of your life? Get thee to Florida! Truly, I can’t say enough great things about the delightful people and amazing food of the Gulf Coast; it really is a wonderful vacation destination.

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As a token of appreciation to my loving husband, I want to recreate some of the iconic Florida dishes we enjoy when we visit; I also want to share them with all of you! Perhaps a big batch of fresh citrus ceviche or steamed crab legs will convince winter to retreat and allow us Midwesterners to finally enjoy our spring and summer. Come along with me while I turn my Omaha kitchen into a Florida beach oasis!

All photos by Sara Blake and Sophia Throop

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