The featured ingredient in the house salad at Cedar Key’s Island Hotel is, nominally, heart of palm, the crisp and tender core of a tree. The ingredient that makes it remarkable is the scoop (or two) of bright-green ice cream that sits atop the whole concoction.
To those in the know, this salad is a local delicacy and delight. To outsiders, it is a bit of a mystery, with two questions at its heart: What is going on in this salad, exactly? How could it be good?
Cedar Key has always been an out-of-the-way sort of place. The small city, which as of 2010 had a population of 702, is located on an island on Florida’s west coast, a little more than an hour’s drive from Gainesville. Once it was covered in cedar trees, which formed the basis for a thriving export economy in the years around the Civil War. By the time Bessie Gibbs and her husband arrived in Cedar Key, though, the place and its economy had taken a downward turn, and the Island Hotel had been used most recently as brothel and a speakeasy.
The Gibbs cleaned the place up and in 1947 re-opened the building as a hotel, bar, and restaurant, which became known among locals and vacationing visitors for its fresh seafood and giant portions. Bessie oversaw the kitchen and the cook, Catherine “Big Buster” Johnson, who’s credited with creating the original hearts of palm salad.
In Florida, heart of palm has long been a fresh and local delicacy, distinct from the canned hearts of palm that are served in salads up north. Natives of south Florida call the vegetable “swamp cabbage” and might prepare it boiled with a bit of bacon or ham. The heart of palm comes from a type of palm tree that grows wild in Florida. It’s officially named the Sabal palmetto, but goes by a variety of other colorful names, including blue palmetto and cabbage palm. There are some palm trees that grow many stems and can produce hearts of palm without giving up their lives, but the cabbage palm isn’t one of them: to eat one’s heart, you have to cut it down.
The salad that Bessie and Catherine cooked up was an original. Along with heart of palm, it featured colorful fruits and sharp candied ginger. The ice cream was the true pièce de résistance, though, a creamy, nutty dressing that would quickly melt over the whole shebang.
There are a few versions of the recipe floating around, and though they all agree that the salad should include hearts of palm and ice cream, there is some disagreement about what else goes in. There are usually dates involved and fresh fruit, which might be banana, pineapple, papaya, or some combination thereof. Sometimes there’s a garnish of candied ginger. Often, these ingredients are meant to go over a bed of lettuce.
For the ice cream dressing, it’s clear that it’s supposed to be green. One version of the recipe calls for pistachio ice cream, a few for lime sherbet. But in the older versions of the recipe, the green coloring of the ice cream is merely for decoration (or, possibly, to make the otherwise appealing coloring of the dressing). In those old versions, the dressing is made from vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, mayonnaise, and green food coloring. It’s all mixed together and then re-frozen.
For decades, the hotel has served some version of this salad. Bessie Gibbs owned the hotel into the 1970s, even while she took on more civic duties. (She was even mayor for a short while.) It was briefly discontinued in 1980s, when cabbage palms were being over-harvested and the state put restrictions on chopping them down. Today restaurants all around Cedar Key offer a version of the salad, and the Island Hotel still serves the original recipe.
As iconic as the salad is for this island, though, is it actually good? The reviews, surprisingly, are positive. According to The New York Times, “This salad is better than dessert.” A visitor writing for the Los Angeles Times concurred: “The dressing sounds weird but tasted so good we asked for the recipe.”