Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sea Grapes

Sea grapes have become, along with coconut palms and the blue curling waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the idealization of Southwest Florida to me.

The pretty sea grape shrubs, which grow wild at the edge of the seashore, are tropical arbors delighting the eye. The distinctive foliage is set off by its light-gray wood.

The color of the slim trunk and branches can vary based on degree of sun and salt exposure. Sea grape b
ranches twist in interesting shapes as if not sure how they should properly grow.

They frame sea views as you stand incredibly moved by the union of water, sky and sandy fringes. They block out the beach parking lots from which you've just come, finally managing to snag a space when the car lot is full.

They're the background for millions of vacation photos, the kind that are turned into screen savers or made into Christmas cards.
If a picture is worth a thousand words a picture of white beach sand and sea grapes almost says it all.

Sea grapes are hardy. They handle wind and the strong gales that can buffet the coast. They're drought resistant. They're tolerant of salt which is important in their proximity to the ocean. They provide shelter and food to wildlife.

Like other native plants, including the sabal palmetto palm, the Florida state tree, they're protected under Florida law.

Their adaptive qualities make them popular in residential and commercial landscaping. The island road we travel could in fact be called Sea Grape Boulevard.

Homeowners use sea grapes as hedges along the Gulf. The shrubs function as lot lines and noise buffers for traffic. They add a seashore look to the neighborhoods, even those not directly on the water.

Sea grapes (also spelled seagrapes) are most attractive in their natural settings as we see it. My friend Rebecca is of the same mind.

She and I agree that sea grape leaves, which are variously described as round, circular, heart shaped and kidney shaped (and I throw in fan shaped) are attention worthy.

Sea grape leaves are broad. They're eight to ten inches wide. Variation in the color of the leaves makes them very picturesque.

In the winter months leaves can be copper, spicy gold, brown, red, pink, fiery orange and green freckled with red. These various colors, and shadings of colors, ripple in the sun for gorgeous effect.

The colored leaves may be new leaves replacing old foliage. They may be leaves getting ready to fall.

Sea grapes appear to have the same tendency as deciduous trees to shed leaves, based on the piles of leaves on the ground. Dry conditions are possibly stressing the leaves causing them to turn color more readily.

We don't have this part figured out yet.
You can pick any guess. We wonder about so many things. All we can say is that in January the leaves are remarkably beautiful.

The fruit of the sea grape is edible and actually very tasty. The berries are in clusters like grapes (hence, I suppose, the name sea grape).

It's pointed out that sea grapes aren't grapes. They're not wild grapes either. Sea grapes are a species of flowering plant in the buckwheat family.

The berries ripen through the summer turning red and purple as they mature. They can be made into jelly and wine.
Rebecca was the one who told me about sea grape jelly. This was new to me.

She says it's hard to find sea grape jelly. She's been lucky occasionally. She mentions Southwest Florida International Airport as a place where she has bought it.

She likes to bring sea grape jelly home with her. It makes great gifts for those with whom she wants to share a taste of Florida.

I suggest to her that possibly she can buy sea grape jelly online. She brightens visibly at this.

Rebecca is my age. Our children can be relied on to use the internet like a shopping cart. They know what's there. They click and buy.

We're getting more comfortable with this concept. It still doesn't tend to be our primary shopping strategy. This is why I felt quite current to so casually toss out the idea. It sounded as if online purchasing is something done all the time.

Rebecca's interest in sea grape jelly passed to me. Some investigating was in order. Without even checking it's reasonably safe to assume sea grape jelly recipes can be found on the internet. Of more interest to me was a recipe from a local cookbook.

I was certain local bookstores, or the cookbook sections at libraries, would have church or community cookbooks with a sea grape jelly recipe in them.

It's always worked this way before. Old time methods of conserving and preserving are tucked away in lovingly compiled cookbooks sold as fundraisers by women's groups,community organizations and dedicated members of the congregation.

In the meantime I asked around. Was anyone familiar with sea grape jelly? Had they tasted it?

Almost all the answers were no. Several who grew up along this area of the Gulf had never heard of sea grape jelly.

The woman at the beach bookstore knew her inventory so well she could confidently advise me. I wouldn't find the recipe there she said. Sensing my disappointment she gave me some information.

She hasn't tasted this specialty jelly but she knows of it. Sea grape jelly is part of the workings of her community. The women's group picks the berries, cooks them and sells them.

It was neat hearing her tell this. It gave piquancy to the jelly which, for all I know, has no piquant taste at all. Perhaps it has just the sweetness of the mystery to it. Although Rebecca assures me the jelly is very good.

One person remembered sea grape jelly sold years ago at many of the fruit stands. They had sea grape jelly for sale then but not now I was told.

One woman, in Florida since the 1960s, had never seen sea grape jelly for sale but suggested visiting a fruit stand or asking the volunteers at the nearby park preserve.

I didn't do the first but I did find the park volunteers. One in the small group, busy that morning with an information program, knew just what I was asking about.

She even has a sea grape jelly recipe. She offered to share it with me. I thought Super. See how easy it can be. It shows up just like that.

I turned to help someone who needed assistance. It was important and it took a little while. When it was taken care of the docent group had dissolved, my sea grape jelly recipe lady along with them.

It makes me happy that this cherished recipe is in this person's home file. The jelly must have important association for her.

I was struck by the unhesitating way she was willing to give the recipe to a stranger. Not securing it at this opportunity, however, the search needed to go on.

Pulling a dozen books on Florida cookery off the shelves of the library, the quest for sea grape jelly came at last to successful conclusion.

Directions for Seagrape-Key Lime Jelly are printed on page 18 of Randy Wayne White's Gulf Cookbook (published 2008).

The cookbook comes with memories and photos of Sanibel Island which makes it more than a book of recipes, delightful as a cookbook is in its own right.

It's the kind of book every vacation time share unit, condo or cabin should have on its coffee table. It's a reminder of the ease of life that once was the mainstay of paradise locales like the Gulf.

There was less then but more. And it goes double for the way love was expressed through homemade cooking.

The sea grape recipe isn't included here. I've listed instead some of the titles from the Florida cookbooks gone through. I wish I had time for each one. Perhaps with this roster I can. (Titles include date of publication and author or publisher).

THE FLORIDA COOKBOOK (Jeanne Voltz and Caroline Stuart, 2003)
SEMINOLE INDIAN RECIPES (Joyce La Fray, publisher, 1996) There wasn't a sea grape jelly recipe but two heritage recipes, sassafras jelly and ascerola cherry jelly, made me feel I was closing in on my search)
GULF COAST KITCHENS (Constance Snow, 2003)
A TASTE OF OLD FLORIDA (Florida Media, 2006)
SIMPLY FLORIDA (Florida Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, 2007)
COUNTRY COOKIN' (Joyce La Fray, 1990)
FLORIDA'S BACKYARD (Carrie Hanna, 2002)
THE SUNSHINE STATE COOKBOOK (George S. Fichter, 1985, 2002)
BEST OF THE BEST FROM FLORIDA COOKBOOK Selected Recipes from Florida's Favorite Cookbooks (Quail Ridge Press, 2004)

Sea grapes were the inspiration for this story. Sea grape jelly was the start of the quest. Perhaps Rebecca's interest, which has become mine, will keep the jelly pot boiling.

It's a great pastime to appreciate local tastes. It goes from pastime to passion to write down and share our recipes, rituals and our times.

Ro Giencke - January 28, 2012

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dolphins, Ospreys and Fighting Crabs

Walking the beach the other day there was commotion out from shore. Bottlenose dolphins were hunting fish.

Here weren't the playful antics applauded at marine parks. This was concentrated bullet- fast pursuit.

The dolphins weren't performing for treats or entertaining audiences in the stands. This was instinct. This was natural and living free.

Fish jumped and came down as the dolphins tore through the water. The fish could be clearly seen. They might have been in flight ahead of the predators or were the food at the end of the chase. We stood and watched and marveled.

The dolphins surfaced and dived. They barreled back and forth. The bathtub waters of the Gulf became aquatic theater. It was one of the recent interesting moments at the shore.

Bottlenose dolphins are the subject of a signboard at the next beach. Dolphins are in the Gulf of Mexico all year long but this isn't considered the season of best sightings. That's May, June and July.

Adult dolphins can eat up to thirty pounds of fish a day. The fish they commonly feed on are sea trout, mullet and snook. They find prey through echolocation, which might be described as sonar detection.

Later Al had a different kind of wildlife encounter. He was swung at by a blue crab on Sanibel Island.

The crab had been washed onto the beach. It was a live crab. Al, more curious about sea creatures that come with claws or fins than I happen to be, found this out.

It proved to be a pugilistic crab. This is maybe how crabs are and why we have the word crabby. It looked ready to deliver a quick undercut.

It struck a boxer's pose. It extended its claws. Its clamp would be hard. It glared at Al. It had no fear of this Goliath whose giant shadow was thrown across the sand.

A woman came along the beach. "That would make someone a good lunch," she said, which told us this was a crab you could eat.

Perhaps knowing you're always someone's possible dinner is enough to make even the mildest mannered crab cranky.

Florida at this time of year sees migrations of snowbirds in flip flops and wrinkled beach wear, as a letter to the editor in the local newspaper alluded to the annual influx.

While some look upon snowbirds as the ones to put the binoculars to the real interest should be the teeming bird life. Florida is a bird watcher's paradise.

We've not visited the places with the birds with bright plumage or had in our sight the familiar home birds who winter here.

We've seen plenty of white birds, many of which are new to us. We called them water birds but shore birds is a real classification into which many of the birds fit.

We recognize sandpipers, egrets, ibises and terns. There are others. They wade in ditches, at the edges of tidal marshes and along the seashore. They hop or pitch forward on long skinny legs.

Some have long sharp bills. Some speed through the beach shallows like skitterbugs. They make us laugh. They hurry to go nowhere - like many of us.

Ospreys are everywhere. We've become adept at spotting their nests. It's easy. Just look up. The nests are atop poles and high in trees. The nests, formed from sticks and other materials including seaweed, are built up over time. They get quite large. This is a sign the ospreys have been there awhile.

Al has his camera trained on a particular pair of ospreys. Their nest is near the pier. The father brings fish to the nest. At least once the mother has sent her mate and the fish away. In this instance he flew to the pier and made the fish his meal.

We have pictures of the pair together on their nest. They could be any hardworking couple with a few free moments to hang in each other's company on the front porch.

The most hilarious of the birds in appearance are the royal terns. We think we have their identity correct. Before we knew their name we called them the birds with the eyebrows in back. And such eyebrows. Groucho Marx comes to mind.

Perhaps it's the association with the bushy brows of the Hollywood funny guy that makes royal terns supremely comical to us.

Birds on the beach have made peace with the joggers, shell hunters, yoga classes on mats, bikers, dog walkers and sunbathers. They take human encroachment in stride.

They see the seashore as their sandy garden abloom with beach parasols. Beach picnickers are viewed as their pass to supper. Signs prohibit feeding wildlife but with birds, as with humans, where there's a will there is a way.

They brush off our presence as I did the biting insects which I now wish had been given a hearty swat. They caught me unaware at sunset where scrub and dune meets the beach.

tern brooded in a nest of its own making on another beach visited by us. It rested in the sun-warm sand where shells lay thick.

Its weight pressed lightly into the shell detritus.
It got up and moved before we reached the spot. A shallow contour, a slender imprint of its presence, remained in the sand where it had been.

Ro Giencke - January 22, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012


There's no scoffing among the initiated. This was my thought the other day as the intended morning walk on Sanibel Island faltered after only a few sandy strides.

Sizing up the busy beach it looked a feasible plan. Simply walk wherever the seashell hunters aren't congregated. Wide as the beach is, it should be easy enough to do.

Failure of plan was as unexpected as it was immediate. A seashell carried to shore came to rest on the wet sands near me. It demanded a look.

This is habit forming I thought as I bent down over the shell. Here I am already mimicking the Sanibel Stoop.

My hand went out toward the cute little colored scallop. The instinctive reaching gesture may have been a copycat gesture. It doesn't take long to follow suit on shell loving Sanibel. More probable there was a deeper response governing me.

Our family took several beach vacations when the kids were young. Some of the best vacations were on beaches like this. In fact some were on these very beaches - the lovely Gulf shores of Ft. Myers Beach and Sanibel and Captiva islands.

We tracked white powdery sand into the car, poured it out of beach buckets brought half full to the parking lot and shook it out of wet swim suits and damp beach towels.

The collections of sea shells picked up on the sea side of the sand dunes inevitably came home in the car trunk as vacation souvenirs.

The seashells weren't thrown out once home. Or only once when the lot of them developed an unholy smell along the way.

Some of the shells were turned into landscape edging. They were put in discreet out-of-sight places in the yard. Seashell decor has a tendency to fight with Midwest taste.

The more striking ones were added to the shells shown off in a woven basket in the bathroom. These shells provided the bathroom motif at our place for many years.

When we moved a few years ago the collection was close to being tossed, "We're starting over" was the reasoning. "Same with some of our stuff. It's time to move on."

Seashells picked up on family vacations do not release quickly we found out. The shells were gently transferred into a double-sacked paper bag and made the move with us.

They were set up in the new bathroom. They're a continuing reminder of family time spent in water and sun.

Beach trips faded as quickly as a September suntan once the kids got older. There were other places to see and other things to do. But there are places you don't forget.

Southwest Florida with its Gulf shoreline and warm winters present now with a different kind of appeal. Shelling, however, wasn't on our long list of things to do.

Shell discovery firmly in hand on that day of the beach walk I resumed my pace. Another interesting shell lay to the side. I scooped this up too. Soon I had several.

They were stacked in my hand, one neatly within the other. This way I could keep picking up without running out of holding capacity. It got trickier when the other hand was put to use as well.

My walk, hardly six steps into it, thoroughly broke down. Concentration was only for the new treasures the washes of the tides were bringing ashore.
The incoming water, eddying, surging and sucking, several times swirled over my sandals as I scoured the margins of the beach. This happened despite judging myself well clear of the incoming floods of water.

A couple times I had to fish my sandals out of the surf with my toes (both hands tied up with shells). The power of the sea was evidenced. It had enough strength to pull the sandals off my feet in mere inches of turbulent water.

Each new spill of water onto the sand had excitement with it. The seashells, rolled by the action of the waves onto the sand, glistened with wetness.

We hastened over. We pounced to the prize. The shells, perhaps never before seen by other eye, were ours to claim as first finders.

Visits to the Captiva Island and Ft. Myers Beach libraries gave chances to identify the shells which my husband and I found separately and together. (The Bailey-Mathews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island is another place to get informed but wasn't visited
on this recent trip).

With the help of the library displays our seashells sorted themselves into names which thereupon facilitated our efforts to further differentiate between the various types.

Spreading our finds on a towel we could view them on a somewhat scientific level. They had become more than curiosities and beach time diversion.

We identify Florida fighting conchs, junonias, lightning whelks, tulip shells, coquinas, calico scallops and a dainty specimen charmingly called kitten's paw among our array.

The tulip shell and and conch specimens displayed in the libraries are my favorites. Our casual beach hunts
have yielded more modest finds.

It makes small difference. As you stoop and ponder each shell you come upon each seashell is a discovery which somehow makes each shell special.

"My, you've got some pretty shells" a shore fisherman remarked as I ducked, with his permission, under his cast line.
(It was either doing that or wading into the water or making a big sandy detour around him.)

I said something agreeable back, two people enjoying the fine day and beautiful setting. The comment about the shells stayed with me, however.

Pretty, as in shells, is in the eye of the holder even more than the beholder. Carrying my shells like precious cargo I felt like a mother with many children. You can find some quality in each that sets it apart. While each is perhaps ordinary as viewed by the world, each is unique because it's yours.

Al and I went along gathering a few more shells. We took in the sea breezes. We absorbed the freedom inherent in the complete ability to bar any thought other than the sensation of capitulation to uncontested outright enjoyment.

The great litter of shells scrunched under our feet as we sank into the shells with each forward step.

This, we knew, with a tact that doesn't require stating the obvious, is the relaxation we came for.

Ro Giencke - January 16, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Jewel of the Coast

We like to stop at public libraries as we travel. It's a continual appreciation of the services offered in the heart of our communities for the improvement of all.

These libraries, with wealth of information, diversity of resources, professional staff, comfortable seating, often good views, or perhaps a historic setting, add to the understanding and perception of the places visited. Whatever its size a good library makes you feel right at home.

Yesterday's library was on Pine Island (Florida). Talk about an open door policy. Doors were open on both the side and main entrances as we walked in. The equalizing nature of libraries seems to apply here in a special way. The outside, as we interpreted it, is put on the same footing as indoor space.

This idea is reinforced by the plantings around the library building. The different shrubs have identification markers. It's like an arboretum comes free with each library visit.

The Pine Island library was pleasantly busy. A patron new to the island was applying for a library card. Retirees read the local newspapers, a young woman studied in one corner and the book section for kids, as in most libraries, is a favorite place.

This obviously popular island library is fifty this year as incorporated within the Lee County library system. But the desire for access to books and information precedes that time.

These Gulf shore islands were previously served by book boat. (And if that isn't romantic what is?!). Volunteers later loaned out books before the present library system was up and running.

Another Lee County library we'd like to visit, but haven't so far, is at Ft. Myers Beach. In my books it gives the beautiful sandy beaches on which it's located a run for the money.

Others must think so too. The library is presently undergoing an expansion project which will make it even more a jewel of the coast.

Ft. Myers Beach library got its start in the mid 1950s. The first library was miniature in square feet if not in its aspirations. It was a tiny cottage.

It was so little that if more than five were inside one stepped out. Stories like this, learned while traveling, is what for me gives travel much of its appeal.

Ro Giencke - January 11, 2012

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Peaceful Side of the Street

Happy New Year! Happy 2012! We're a dozen years into the new millennium which long ago lost the luster the start of a fresh batch of years brings. There's been a lot of water over the dam as you consider all that's happened since.

Yet in some ways, if you don't think too hard, it can seem just yesterday that 2000, with all its zeroes to challenge the computers, was ushered in.

Those millennial celebrations were watched on TV to huge audiences. I recall the relief as the lights stayed on, first in New Zealand and Sydney, and then west across the time zones as the new year eventually arrived on American shores.

This year has its own set of watchers but most of us aren't in that particular audience. We're not looking for the end of the world with 2012 but the start or continuation of better times.

Among those in the latter camp, perhaps, might be our neighbors. They lit off firecrackers at the stroke of twelve.

The salvo of salutes was a compact display. It was circumspect but with a distinct sense of merrymaking which pleased me.

This morning, the ground covered in white, it occurred to me that last night's falling snow possibly muffled the sound effects from down the street. Snow can act as a blotter giving a sense of quietness to even a New Year's Eve party scene.

Absorbing the picture today's white yard makes I caught movement in the tree boughs. A white feathery bird with wide wing span came out of nowhere to alight on a branch. My mind identified it as a snowy owl even though I don't think this area is in its range.

It gave the impression of being soft and feathery. It seemed such a creature of winter and snow.

It flew off before I could come to any further decision about the bird. I'll stick with it being an owl. I like to think it came to bring wisdom for the new year.

Maybe it was the peacefulness embodied in the strong confident flight of this unknown bird that caused the word peace to stand out in a story I read next.

I was skimming through the Parade supplement of our Sunday newspaper, dipping into articles here and there as you do when at your most leisurely. I was willing to stop when something sounded relevant. The article, "Up Your Gratitude," had that kind of promise to it.

The article was written by John Kralik, author of A Simple Act of Gratitude. The book, published in 2010 and now in paperback, tells about his year of writing thank-you notes. This ambitious project followed a resolve Kralik made in 2008 to write a thank you note to a different person every day.

That's 365 thank yous in one year - or even 366. (The year 2008, like this year of 2012, is a Leap Day year.) A thank you a day for a year is a lot of gratitude being expressed.

This is the line that caught my attention. Kralik writes, and I quote him, "I can say I keep learning that gratitude is a path to the peace we all seek."

I can't think of anything better than using this profound observation to shape our new year. Gratitude most certainly is a path to the peace each one of us, at some level, even perhaps hidden from us, hungers for.

Peace, in this upside down, topsy-turvy and beleaguered world, is too often regarded as an unobtainable goal, an impossibility or a dream. It will be if we don't each of us do what we can to steer the world to the peaceful side of the street.

If peace begins with each of us gratitude is an excellent place to begin. What are you thankful for? Who are you thankful for? See it. Say it. Write it.

When one begins to wonder when and how peace will ever come we can look at it as a personal investment. We do well to take it as our responsibility -not someone else's.

Peace begins inside, with gratitude and certainly with hope. We start with ourselves and work outward for peace to come.

Ro Giencke - January 1, 2012