Monthly Archives: May 2013

Tomato Picking at Hunsader Farms in Bradenton, FL

Learn a New Appreciation for the Farmer by Picking Tomatoes at Hunsader Farms

We like to go to Hunsader Farms for tomato picking. At $5 for a five gallon bucket (you bring your own buckets), they aren’t quite as cheap as last year’s $1 per bucket bonanza, but it’s still a great price.

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Open from Mid-September to Mid-June, Hunsader Farms roots run deep in this part of Bradenton since 1967. Located on County Road 675, the farm market and U-Pick fields are easy to access and well laid out. While there are sections for commercial pickers, 250 long rows are reserved for the general public.

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My husband worked on the right side and I worked the left.

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Here’s another perspective:

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Our own garden has a lot of green tomatoes, but I needed a serious amount since I intend to can them. One 5 gallon bucket cooks down to one quart sized jar of spaghetti sauce and one quart of tomato juice. We filled eight buckets, so I’m looking forward to a good yield.

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It’s back breaking work and we only worked for an hour. Lifting the heavy buckets, bending over to pick the tomatoes, and sweating under a hot Florida sun gave me a new appreciation for the Florida farmer.

After we picked, we did a little shopping in their market: some flavored honey, cucumbers, and carrots. I have plenty of onions and eggplant in the garden, so I didn’t buy any but I do enjoy looking at their prices, to see what I’m saving.

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After shopping, we stopped and ate lunch at the picnic tables in a lovely, shaded glen. The restrooms are nearby and very clean. I wandered over to the petting zoo area…always a big hit with kids, but since I had no feed (you can buy 25¢ bags), I was a huge disappointment to the animals. I found the emus and deer amusing.

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Birthday parties are big here, because the cost is so reasonable ($5 per child, 10 children minimum), but adding a hayride, train ride, or helium balloons can add to the final price. Adult parties (weddings, reunions, company picnics, etc.) are popular, as well. Depending on your venue, the grounds can accommodate up to 1000 people and the “Country Club” barn facility offers indoor protection from the elements for up to 175 people. Rentals run for the entire day: $2000 to rent grounds and country club or $1200 for grounds alone or $800 for Country Club alone. A $100 per hour extra charge is levied for every hour the party continues after 5 PM and ALL venues must cease by 11 PM. Hay rides and children’s train rides are available at additional cost.

There are fun little touches here and there…I loved these two carved characters:

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If you’re in the area during the month of October, try not to miss the Pumpkin Festival. There are numerous activities for the kids, including rock wall climbing, face painting, pony rides and craft booths. There’s even a corn maze ($2 extra fee)!

The real joy at Hunsader Farms, though, comes in the picking. Depending on the month, the fields may be open for strawberries, beans, and other produce, including, yes, tomatoes.

The visit was a much-needed break from the busy-ness of our city, offering a new appreciation for the…not simple, because rural life is never simple…reflective viewpoint.

Lake Manatee State Recreational Area, Pristine and Beautiful

Escape for a Day or Camp Overnight at Lake Manatee State Recreational Area

Located on state Road 64, fifteen miles east of Bradenton, Lake Manatee State Recreational Area encompasses three miles of Lake Manatee shoreline and 556 acres that once provided the common activities of pioneer days: cattlemen worked the land as hard as the farmers. The land also supported a busy timber and turpentine industry. Periodic controlled burns are used these days to clear the land and keep habitat from choking the area off.

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Today, it is an area for recreational activities such as camping, swimming, fishing (from the dock or boat) and boating and is open seven days a week, from 8 AM until sundown.

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Bicycles can be rented at the Ranger Station. They have fat wheels, making them suitable for biking on or off paved trails. A two and a half mile paved road provides bicyclists and hikers with a pleasant step back into nature and eventually loops around the two campground areas. For the more adventurous, there is another trail, unpaved, that is nearly as long, but offers a bit more challenge.

Lake Manatee, encompassing a 2,400 acre area, is now a reservoir for Manatee and Sarasota County drinking water. Fishing is popular here and the lake teems with catfish, largemouth and sunshine bass, bluegill, and speckled perch. Bobcats, alligators, deer, and gopher turtles, as well as numerous species of birds inhabit the area.

A boat ramp provides easy access to the lake. Boat motors are restricted to 20 horsepower, so it is a pleasant place for those who prefer to canoe or kayak. Water skiing is prohibited.

Swimming is restricted to a designated area. There are no lifeguards on duty so you swim at your own risk. Be warned: lake plants are sometimes blown into the swimming area. Their long roots can act like tendrils that can entrap an unwary swimmer.

There is a good-sized picnic area tucked under the scrub pine trees and the main pavilion (accommodates 12 tables and has electric and grill) can be reserved for a fee. The children’s playground is a popular spot for young families.

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The full-facility campground includes 60 campsites and a bathhouse and shower facility. RVs are limited to 65 feet. Each campsite is provided with water and electricity. A dump station is located near the campground entrance.

Pets are welcome, but must be well-behaved and on a six foot hand held leash at all times. Pets, excluding service animals which are allowed in all areas, are not allowed in the swimming area and should never be left unattended. Pet owners are expected to clean up after their pets so that everyone can enjoy the park freely.

Popular with people from all walks of life, the Lake Manatee State Recreational Area offers an escape from the busy-ness of daily life and reminds us to take time to slow down a little and appreciate our surroundings.

For more information call the Lake Manatee State Recreational Area at (941) 741-3028

 

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

The Florida panhandle has seen its share of storm damage. Tropical storms aren’t usually too much trouble for a Floridian, but hurricanes can be relentlessly unforgiving. As one man said, “You hunker down and ride out the wind, hoping you don’t lose everything, grateful for what’s left.” As hard hit as it seems to get year after year, I simply cannot resist going back time and again to drink in the Florida of my youth, when people stopped to do a favor and roadside stands promised just one delectable temptation at a time.

Of course, once we round the bend, our mouths start watering for oysters, so we spend a lovely morning of shopping in Apalachicola, stop for an oyster po’boy lunch and then we head west again to visit the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but then again, this park is an eyeful.

The park is on the very end of a finger of land that protects the mainland. The waters are clear, blue and not prone to riptides because of the peninsula’s protection. Nine and a half miles of snow-white sand welcomes the beach crowd on the Gulf side and bayside accommodates the boaters with some interesting accesses into the grass flats and coves that carve out the landscape.

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There is a tiny “museum” of fossilized specimens of days gone by; some, sadly, has been taken, since there is seldom an attendant on duty. There is a concession stand, but I’ve never bought anything there, since I was far too busy discovering wildlife along the 6 mile access-by-permission-only wilderness trail (there are two other, shorter, hiking trails with public access).

Here you will find the usual oceanfront recreations: a wide variety of boating and camping choices, fishing, snorkeling, and swimming, along with fishing, biking, and hiking. Or you can choose your spot on the ten miles of white sand beach, in 2002 named as the best beach in the nation by none other than Gainesville’s Dr. Beach (Dr. Steven Leatherman), who issues a new list each year. There are public restrooms and cold-water shower facilities for day guests, hot water facilities in the campgrounds for overnight guests (although day guests can sometimes receive special permission to use the camp showers).

We want to return to the St. Joseph State Park and rent one of their “cabins”: small, tidy, furnished stand-alone cottages that sit right on the water’s edge. The units have kitchens equipped with basic cooking and dining utensils, seasonal gas fireplaces, heat & A/C, and, of course, bathrooms. There is no TV, internet service, or telephone ,and cell phone reception is poor. The price sure was reasonable: $100 per night, $650 for the week. Each cabin sleeps up to six people.

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We’ll return again one day, to build castles on the beach and watch them wash away with an incoming tide and a setting sun.

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Corkscrew Swamp

Let us slip away, then, to Corkscrew Swamp, to see what’s stirring in the 13,000 acres of pristine Florida at the Western edge of the Florida Everglades. We’d chosen this visit in May, on the first anniversary of my Mother’s death to spread the last of Mom’s ashes in the swamp she loved and had served as a volunteer guide.

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As we walked along the boardwalk, built by volunteers, I looked for the boards that friends and family had purchased in remembrance of my brother’s death. My mother had immersed herself here, healing her broken heart, as much as any mother can after the death of a child, working through her grief by giving back to that which she treasured most: her beloved Florida. She knew her facts and was entertaining and quite popular as a guide.

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My husband would ask, as we stopped here and there to admire the view or take a picture or smell a flower, if I wanted to spread my mother’s ashes at that spot, but each time I shook my head “no”. “I’ll know,” I told him. He did not ask me how I would know. He just nodded his head, allowing me my lead, which is just one of the reasons why I love him. This was a difficult task for me. He’d try again, a little later: “This is a pretty spot.” “Yes,” I agreed, “But it’s not the right spot.” I was getting discouraged.

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Then my husband started talking to two tour guides who came strolling up. I was irritated. I hadn’t asked permission to spread the ashes and I didn’t want them tagging along if I found the right spot.

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Well, wouldn’t you know, it came out that my mother had been a guide here, about ten years earlier. The woman guide asked her name and when I told her, she laughed and said my mother had trained her.

Then she pointed me in the right direction, by asking me a question:

“You know that Phoebe’s ashes are here, right?”

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My eyes widened. I’d forgotten about Phoebe, Mom’s fellow Audubon fan and drinking buddy. Phoebe and Mom had spent many hours together bird watching and boating and playing gin rummy, in addition to volunteering at the swamp.

Mom and Phoebe

It was at that moment that I knew where Mom should rest. I came clean and told the guide that I had the last of Mom’s ashes and asked if I could spread them where Phoebe’s ashes had been placed. She told me exactly where the spot was and then left us alone to complete our mission. I like to think that Mom and Phoebe are together again, playing cards under a setting sun, the ice tinkling in their glasses as they raise their binoculars to their eyes when they hear the hawk cry out in territorial authority. My faith teaches me that their worldly bodies are no longer needed so it doesn’t matter where they rest. Either way, it was symbolic and it felt right.

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Oysters are King in Apalachicola

Apalachicola, King of the Forgotten Coast

We’d cancelled our reservations at the Gibson Inn for the murder mystery weekend in Apalachicola, mainly because the theme was football-based, which did not interest me. After we drove past it, we felt we’d made the right choice, since it sat right in the middle of town with traffic on all four sides. Great for shopping, but relaxing by the water would have required compromise. Instead, we chose the Apalachicola River Inn, which reminded me of a riverboat since the building sat out over the water.

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The view from the private balcony:

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That night, the reflection of a full moon shimmered over the still water as the buzz of distant insects played in the background, broken only by the splash of breeching mullet that landed with a plop.

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Early morning river commute:

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Later the same day:

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We’d had our complimentary drink in the bar the night before and took full advantage of the free breakfast the next morning. I ordered eggs over easy, shrimp and grits, and juice. Shrimp and grits sounds better than it is. I found it too spicy for early morning.

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The rest of the morning was spent in historical downtown Apalachicola. The art museum was closed (we tried on our way home, too, but they were still closed) so we just poked our heads in shops and galleries.

Naturally, we stopped at Boss Oyster for lunch:

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In fact, we had oysters, in one form or another at almost every meal during our too-short stay and we could not resist purchasing more to take back home. I don’t know why the Apalachicola bi-valves taste better than those harvested from other areas, but I assure you, the difference in taste as well as in size is remarkable.

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The town itself is quite beautiful with many historic homes and buildings, yet carries a certain ruggedness that only a true fishing village can. From the late 1800s to early 1900s, Apalachicola’s sponge trade was booming, helping it to grow into the third busiest port in the nation. Today, it might be less well known if not for its reputation as a source of superior oysters and shrimp. My husband offered to take me on a boat ride, but I thought the offer was rigged:

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After all, papa was a rollin’ stone:

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Funniest name I saw on a boat? “Breakin’ Wind”. I asked my husband if that was his boat, but he said it couldn’t be because the “Pain in the Butt” wasn’t moored close by!

We had a lot of fun in Apalachicola and I look forward to a return trip and more oysters. On my to-do list for our return visit: Fort Gasden in the Apalachicola National Forest, part of the Florida Black Heritage Trail, and a closer exploration of the islands that protect the Apalachicola Bay: Flag Island, Sand, St. Vincent Island, St. George Island, and Cape St. George Island.

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A Visit to Gulfport, Florida

Gulfport, Florida is a Step Back in Time

Our trip to Gulfport, Florida, nestled next to St. Petersburg, was a trip down memory lane! Little has changed over the years here and yet it has kept up with the times, offering the best of both worlds: family-friendly safe as well as eclectic Key West-style lifestyle.

We headed for Gulfport’s waterfront district, on the edge of Boca Ciega Bay. The city of 12,000 is an art community, as well as a beach community, and the seaside cottages are painted in bright colors that lift the soul.

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As I stepped through the doors of the Gulfport Casino Ballroom, small, by today’s standards, and into the Quonset hut shaped building, I could almost hear the Big Band sound wafting from the stage and instead of tables and booths filled with Florida memorabilia, I could see the pretty girls in their rolled and pinned up hair waiting by the sidelines for a boy in uniform to ask her to dance.

The building sits by (on?) Williams Pier, which juts out over the bay. The crystal chandeliers and the worn wooden floorboards brought me back to the days of shuffleboard and bocce ball and old men feeding seagulls from park benches.

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The Tierra Verde shoreline and the Don Cesar Hotel, aka “The Pink Palace” across the bay, offer pleasing views, whether wiggling your toes in the water or soaking in the sun on a beach towel. The “Don”, originally built as a hotel in 1928 and used as a hospital for recovering soldiers during WWII, reverted back to hotel use in 1973. We stayed there once. The view was fantastic and we watched a beach wedding from our window. It is, however, a historic building and all the quirks are there, including very small guest rooms.

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Gulfport houses and stores are quaint, no high rise condos here, folks, even the library is vintage 1950s. Maybe 60s. It wasn’t terribly crowded, but it was busy. We were all there for what had been billed as “Florida’s largest show” of vintage Florida souvenirs and memorabilia. I found many treasures including a “Florida Queen” cigar box and a matchbook with matches intact. Its outside cover offered “a choice Florida home site (Only $195 per lot, no money down! Purchaser paid $5 per month per lot.). Other finds included a “Graham for Senator” political button, a quilted hat made by Seminole Indians, and shipping labels from a couple of Florida citrus companies.

I priced some textiles, but passed them up. Later, we crossed the street and had lunch in one of the many restaurants in the area. There is a wide variety of cuisine choices here and the area has been recognized in the past as a strong contender in “Best Dining Experience”-type competitions.

Ours was a day visit, so we did not get to see all the area had to offer. Next time, I’d like to explore the Clam Bayou Nature Preserve and stroll the grounds of nearby Stetson University.

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Florida May Day Celebrations: 1950s

May Day Celebrations in Florida During the 1950s

It’s May Day. No one really celebrates it anymore. When I was in the 1st grade and again in the 3rd grade, I attended a little country school in Florida. There were two grades to a room and after 8th grade you had to take the bus into the city to go to school. Our bus picked us up at the front gate, engulfed in a dust cloud kicked up off the dirt road by the big tires. After a hard rain, the road would have ridges like a washboard until the county came through to grade again, making bus rides during those times particularly jarring.

By the time we arrived at the wood schoolhouse, we were packed in, 3 to a school bus seat large enough for two adults. We wore shorts and were allowed to attend school barefoot, which I found gloriously liberating in comparison to schooling in the Boston area.

My third grade teacher stuck up for me when the kids laughed because I didn’t know what a gopher was, saying we were both right…it WAS a brown, furry rodent like I said and it WAS a land turtle like the Betts boy said. That’s when my cousin Shelly and I did our best head toss and walked off, refusing to give any more time to such a dumb boy. All he was good for was playing a guitar.

In April, our teacher announced that we would be having a May Day celebration and she would teach us to dance around a May Pole.

We walked out to the schoolyard and a pole with many beautiful colored ribbons attached to it. In a few minutes, we would take a ribbon that was attached to the pole. For now, they were secured at the bottom to keep them from tangling but the breeze made them flutter in the middle. We were told to stand in a circle around the pole, boy/girl/boy/girl. When the music started, we joined hands and stepped to the center, then took our assigned streamer in our right hand and returned to the outside of the circle. We were then told to turn and face our neighbor to the right.

The boys took one step to the outside, the girls, a step to the inside. The teachers explained that we would weave the ribbons by walking, girls clockwise, boys, counterclockwise, lifting and lowering our ribbons so that they would weave over and under. I would hold my ribbon up so I could go over the streamer of the first boy, then duck down and walk under the ribbon of the next boy. The boys reversed the routine. As we circled the pole, our ribbons would wind around, covering more and more of the pole as our ribbons grew shorter. It took many practices to get it right, but on the big day, when the music started and we danced the Maypole Dance, those ribbons wound around perfectly and in the end, we had a very colorful pole.

Years later, I would learn of the pagan origins of the Maypole celebration and had a good laugh. I take the same stand on Maypole dancing as I do on trick or treating or hanging Christmas decorations: it’s all in the intention.