In Florida, New Jobs, Same Old Swamp Cabbage

A vendor advertises the celebrated dish at the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, Fla. i i

hide captionA vendor advertises the celebrated dish at the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, Fla. Swamp cabbage is actually the insides of a palm tree, according to one vendor.

David Greene/NPR
A vendor advertises the celebrated dish at the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, Fla.

A vendor advertises the celebrated dish at the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival in LaBelle, Fla. Swamp cabbage is actually the insides of a palm tree, according to one vendor.

David Greene/NPR
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Tim Smith and his Buckshot Band are regulars at the Swamp Cabbage Festival. i i

hide captionMusician Tim Smith is a regular at the festival. Smith says he used to pull in good money as a land surveyor, but construction has dropped off so much, he now makes more money at music.

David Greene/NPR
Tim Smith and his Buckshot Band are regulars at the Swamp Cabbage Festival.

Musician Tim Smith is a regular at the festival. Smith says he used to pull in good money as a land surveyor, but construction has dropped off so much, he now makes more money at music.

David Greene/NPR
A vendor mixes swamp cabbage in a huge cauldron at the festival in LaBelle, Fla. i i

hide captionOne recipe for swamp cabbage calls for mixing the vegetable with salt pork, onions and "Everglades seasoning."

David Greene/NPR
A vendor mixes swamp cabbage in a huge cauldron at the festival in LaBelle, Fla.

One recipe for swamp cabbage calls for mixing the vegetable with salt pork, onions and "Everglades seasoning."

David Greene/NPR
Shywona Williams, 25, stands with daughter Ciara and niece Chenel, both 2 years old, at the festival i i

hide captionShywona Williams, 25, brought daughter Ciara (right) and niece Chenel Broughton, both 2 years old, to the festival. She had planned to go into teaching, but schools have made so many cuts in her county, she says she'll hold tight to her Wal-Mart job for now.

David Greene/NPR
Shywona Williams, 25, stands with daughter Ciara and niece Chenel, both 2 years old, at the festival

Shywona Williams, 25, brought daughter Ciara (right) and niece Chenel Broughton, both 2 years old, to the festival. She had planned to go into teaching, but schools have made so many cuts in her county, she says she'll hold tight to her Wal-Mart job for now.

David Greene/NPR
Kimberly Dortch stands in the Lake City, Fla., restaurant where she is a server. i i

hide captionKimberly Dortch lost her job as a restaurant manager and is now waiting tables at two eateries.

David Greene/NPR
Kimberly Dortch stands in the Lake City, Fla., restaurant where she is a server.

Kimberly Dortch lost her job as a restaurant manager and is now waiting tables at two eateries.

David Greene/NPR
Janice Stockton, a cook, sits at a table in a restaurant in Lake City, Fla. i i

hide captionJanice Stockton, a cook at the restaurant where Dortch works, gave up her state job and has had a tough time finding another.

David Greene/NPR
Janice Stockton, a cook, sits at a table in a restaurant in Lake City, Fla.

Janice Stockton, a cook at the restaurant where Dortch works, gave up her state job and has had a tough time finding another.

David Greene/NPR

In many places around the U.S., people hit by the recession are being forced to make sacrifices. They're concerned about the economy and their jobs, and they're waiting for the day when things will start to look up. Meanwhile, they're making changes and finding ways to hang on to what's normal.

In LaBelle, Fla., what's "normal" is an annual celebration of a local food called "swamp cabbage."

Fine restaurants call it "hearts of palm," but in south central Florida, it's been called swamp cabbage at least since the Depression, when the vegetable helped Floridians survive.

Now, with the jobless rate hovering around 8 percent in the Sunshine State, swamp cabbage is still a hit.

'Hard-Working People'

Last weekend, Ricky Bass stirred a bubbling cauldron of the thick brown goop at the 43rd annual Swamp Cabbage Festival.

"You'll beat your brains out with your tongue when you taste it," he said. "Cut it up, mix a little salt pork in it, onions, Everglades seasoning, and you got swamp cabbage."

Part of the soundtrack of the celebration is provided by Tim Smith and the Buckshot Band. Smith says the south central part of the state is "full of hard-working people."

"The culture is ... mainly redneck, and to me, redneck is not a bad thing, like most people think it is," Smith said. "Rednecks are people who are hard-working people. They go out and bust their butts to do their job, and on the weekends, they go party."

When he's not belting out Southern rock, Smith spends his days surveying land for construction projects.

"Couple years ago, I pulled in 250 or 300 thousand dollars for just that year," he said.

But these days, the construction work has dropped off so much that he's making more money playing music than surveying land.

Staying Put

Just past the armadillo races, over by the children's rides, Shywona Williams was attending the festival with her 2-year-old daughter.

Williams, 25, works the night shift at a Wal-Mart. Until recently, she had some big plans.

"I'm just finishing school, and I want to teach," she said. "But they just made a bunch of cuts here in Hendry County. At the school, they cut a lot of teachers, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to stay at Wal-Mart until I can get a job teaching. Right now, I don't think it's going to happen, and I'm happy at Wal-Mart."

'Trying To Make Ends Meet'

Williams isn't alone: This recession is forcing many people to alter their plans and make tough choices.

Far north of LaBelle on the Interstate 75 corridor, in Lake City, Fla., Kimberly Dortch — also a single mom — lost her job as a manager at a restaurant.

She could no longer afford to pay rent, so she and her daughter, who is about to graduate from high school, are now living 40 miles apart.

"I've lost my home. I had to put her with friends, and I had to stay with friends," Dortch said. But she hopes to save money, get her home back and have everyone together again in May.

Saving money means working two new jobs and taking on longer hours, not as a manager but as a server.

"I work here [a local diner] Monday through Friday and Applebees Thursday through Sunday, trying to make ends meet," Dortch said. "And the tips aren't there anymore."

But she and her co-workers are doing their best — including Janice Stockton, who works in the kitchen.

"Right now, I'm doing what I can do to get by," Stockton said.

Cooking omelets isn't the kind of work Stockton is used to. For years, she was a state regulator, but then her office moved and the commute was too much for her.

She thought it'd be easy to find another state job, but that's not the way it has worked out.

She said the transition from state government to working in a diner wasn't easy.

"It gives you brand new appreciation for people who have these — who are in these positions," she said. "It makes you realize just how important of a part we all play. Whether you're in the White House or an outhouse, or wherever you are, you play an important role in the operation of America. And it all takes everybody working together in order for us to pull our way out of this."

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