Photo by Alagu M/Flickr CCi
I've never been to Pensacola, and I can't say that Florida has ever really resided high on my list of culinary or cultural heroes. But of late I've had it on my mind since we put together a special Florida-based menu for a party the Roadhouse did last month. Alex and I put together a whole menu of Florida food for the event...which included the Gazpachi Salad.
Wait, you've never heard of it? Not shocking. Granted I've never been to Pensacola and there are zillions of people I haven't talked to, but the only one so far who speaks with authority on the issue has been Chef Jim Shirley . Jim owns a trio of good restaurants down in the coastal town Pensacola, and I heard him speak at a Southern Foodways Symposium a few years ago that focused on the foods of the Gulf, one of which was this Gazpachi Salad. In honesty, it's one of those foods I didn't really pay a huge amount of attention to at the time, but when I got to thinking about a Florida menu, gazpachi came pretty quickly back to mind. And now that I've been playing with it at home regularly for the last few weeks, I have even more interest in it.
So...never been to Pensacola. Jim Shirley called it a "small drinking town with a fishing problem." Can't say it made me that eager to go, but it did stick with me. It is said to have some of the whitest sand beaches in the world, which does raise my interest level higher. When I think Florida I usually call up images of Miami, Cuban comities, big hotels full of tourists, maybe Orlando and Disney World. But if you look at the map, you'll see that Pensacola is actually much closer to Mobile than Miami, right in there with all that Gulf Coast cultural and historical stuff that draws on French, Spanish and English, along with Native American, Caribbean and African influences. The area's likely Native American roots are with the Muskhogen tribe stock that probably spoke a dialect close to Choctaw.
Anyways, first thing Jim Shirley said of Pensacola the other day when we talked on the phone was, "First European settlement in North America!" 2009 happened to mark the 450th anniversary of Pensacola being settled by the Spanish, the first North American spot in which that happened. Puts it at 1559 if you're math skills are weak in the waning weeks of summer.
So let me finally get down to the dish. Basically it's a saladified (not solidified) version of gazpacho. To quote Chef Jim Shirley, it's clearly "a salad that goes back to the Spanish roots of Pensacola." It's not very hard to see how the cold Spanish vegetable soup could have morphed into this salad. As Shirley said, "If you stick hardtack in your gazpacho, what you get evolves into gazpachi salad."
Like so many of the foods I like, gazpachi salad is totally dependent on the quality of what goes into it. Made with out-of-season, not-very-good-vegetables, and some so-so olive oil and vinegar and...it wouldn't be anything I'd really want to eat. But right now while the tomatoes are at the height of their flavor around here it really is darned good.
Turns out to that gazpachi has some long-standing connections to the American culinary past that go beyond Pensacola. Mary Randolph in her very historically important 1824 cookbook, Virginia Housewife , has a recipe for "Gaspacha--Spanish," about which she writes, "Put some soft biscuit or toasted bread in the bottom of a salad bowl, put in a layer of sliced tomatas with the skin taken off, and one of sliced cucumbers, sprinkled with pepper, salt and chopped onion do this until the bowl is full, stew some tomatas quite soft, strain the juice, mix in some mustard and oil, and pour over it; make it two hours before it is eaten." (The 'tomatas' are her spelling, not mine. Not sure if she said "tomaytoes" or "tomahtoes," but given the English influence on Virginia of that era we'll assume the latter.)