Southern frosts notwithstanding, at this time of year the baggage conveyors at Washington airports are regularly spewing new bags of Florida oranges and grapefruits. In fact, vacationers returning from Miami are more likely to bring back a bag of oranges than a tan this season.
But oranges and grapefruits you can buy everywhere, from your school PTA or Kiwanis fundraiser as well as from your supermarket. Citrus fruits ship well and keep long. No trick to it. But the tourist who means to really compensate for a lack of midwinter-vacation tan should bring home a bushel of tomatoes or a flat of strawberries.
Dade County is more than pastel high-rise condominiums and a 200-block stretch of delicatessens and Cuban carryout. It is a county with hundreds of small farms that turn Florida into the 10th largest potato producing state in the country; Dade also grows 95 percent of the limes in the country and a good share of carrots, celery, mangoes, avocados. But this time of year, even the oranges can't compete with the strawberries. Strawberry fields forever, that's what you see as you drive into South Dade, toward Redlands.
As you enter Goulds along Hainlin Mill Road, past the fields striped with black plastic to keep down the weeds, you can smell Burr's Berry Farm, that wonderful acid perfume of ripe berries. And that is what they sell, from the week after Christmas to May, berries that are picked every day, none of them less than fully ripe. Berries as big as babies' fists, and just as sweet. Berries that stand vertically in green cardboard boxes, carefully layered so that every one is upright and they fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, forming a pyramid reaching several inches above the rim of the box. A quart of Burr's strawberries weighs well over two pounds. Every one perfect.
People in Florida don't just buy strawberries; they buy Florida 90s -- long and flat and tasting a little like wild strawberries -- or Tufts -- huge, firmer, sweeter and longer-keeping -- or the prettiest and roundest, Tiogas. And while they wait for their strawberries to be plastic-wrapped (never done ahead of time), they sip a strawberry milkshake, just milkshake-base and ripe berries, not even any sugar. The Burrs sell strawberry everything: shushes, ice cream cones. They also sell lemons as big as oranges and tomatoes as red as strawberries, and fragile, ruffled green bibb lettuce. They used to ship berries as far as England and Italy, but now their 12 acres rarely go farther than Miami.
The soil in that part of the state is crushed coral rock, with nutrients added, as Mary Bur described it, "almost like hydroponics." The Burrs enjoy an unbroken growing season, with avocados taking over from June to January, mangoes ripening June to September. This winter's weather has been hard on nearly everything (and everyone) in Miami, but the strawberries have thrived, the slow-ripening in this cold winter turning them sweeter than ever. No, the weather hasn't been a problem, but the farmers of Dade County have other problems; as one customer put it, while waiting for his weekly dozen quarts of strawberries, "This is the best farmland in the county -- for building." The encroachment of development is the most persistent pest the local farmers have to combat.
Attention to detail is routine in this farm country; farther out in Princeton, an empty roadside stand is that way only because they pick everything to order. Down the road is Knaus Berry Farm, run by Amish families, both local and from Ohio, with a busy bakery as well as a produce stand. The lines are long for strawberries, papayas, bibb lettuce and kohlrabi. Another line stretches to the bakery counter for herbed breadsticks, shoofly pie, dill bread and pecan buns that taste like spun butter.
Back in the city, produce is another matter. Typically, bins of local oranges and grapefruits will stretch across the front of a produce shop, and in one place a bin of plastic-bagged bagels (homegrown?). But behind are mostly imports, their signs proudly identifying them as Hawaiian pineapples or California oranges. Most of the fruits and vegetables look no more dewy than those found in Washington's supermarkets: iceberg lettuce, red delicious apples, nearly-green bananas and totally-green mangoes. It looks as if Floridians are doing penance for their cold winter, eating northern winter fruit because it fits the day's temperature.
In Washington we pay delicacy prices for Florida's pompano and stone crab claws. In Miami's seafood markets, you ask what they have and they first tell you about the sea bass and salmon they have brought from the North and West. Press them further, ask what's local, and they will admit to having grouper nd pompano.Signs on restaurants celebrate their Maine lobster; one restaurant is called the New England Seafood House. The grass is always greener and the seafood always tastier, the farther away it is raised.
What grows best in Miami's environment is convenience. Turnberry Isle Yacht Club provides room service for the apartments in its complex; one company will pick up dinner at a restaurant and deliver it to a home within an hour. Tony Roma's barbecue carryout have drive-thru windows, and even take credit cards. One Big Daddy liquor store is open 24 hours a day, but it won't deliver before 9:30 a.m. (and its Dom Perignon costs $85, about $35 more than it costs in Washington).
Miami is the land of the eary-bird special, where not only is early dinner cheap, but so plentiful that you are invited to share it and take home the leftovers. It is the site of the Rascl House, a delicatessen so good that the line starts before early breakfast and doesn't stop all day, where the chicken platter is a whole chicken, and the waitress automatically bags the rest of your homemade rolls to take home. In Miami, a budget restaurant means less than $5 -- with tax and tip. And some of the most elegant shops have a coffee table set with liqueurs in crystal decanters for you to sip while you wait.
Food in Miami is a mix -- in equal proportions -- of the real and unreal.