It has been a busy few weeks for the Mr. and Mrs., but we made sure to mark last week's "History in a Glass" event at the Orange County Regional History Center in Sharpie on our calendars. The series caught our attention last year by combining Central Florida history with a craft cocktail competition featuring bartenders from local bars. So when we saw that the June event's topic was celery we HAD to be there.
If you are wondering why we were so excited by the opportunity to learn more about one of the world's most uninteresting vegetables, it's because our hometown of Sanford and the surrounding area has such an intriguing history that revolves around the marshland plant.
Upon arrival at the History Center located Downtown Orlando, we were greeted with a welcome cocktail and a lively deejay. Light bites were also provided by Hawkers Asian Street Fare.
But before diving into the cocktail competition in which bartenders were instructed to use celery in their concoctions, we learned more about what turned Sanford and other nearby towns into celery-growing meccas.
Sanford's Celery History
Several freezes in the late 1800s knocked out much of the citrus that settlers and growers were so dependent on. Sanford's population dropped by more than half as groves were abandoned.
Thinking outside the box, I.H. Terwilliger stayed after the freezes and is reputed to have planted the first celery grown in Sanford in 1896. More people came to plant celery crops and by 1898 Sanford's celery was known nationwide. Celery was being grown across more than 6,000 acres in the Central Florida area, producing 73% of the nation's celery.
Sanford had rightly earned the nickname "The Celery City," although it's important to note that the a significant number of celery crops also came from Oviedo, Orlando, and beyond.
Other Central Florida celery tidbits:
- Wooden boards were used in the celery fields to cover parts of the vegetable and suppress some of the plant's bitter taste. Many of Sanford's homes in the historic district are made from these boards.
- Sanford's local high school teams became known as the "Celery Feds" which wasn't very intimidating to the "Orlando Tigers."
- There were roughly 553 celery farms in the area in the early 1900s. That number dwindled down to just 22 by the end of World War II.
The Celery Cocktail Competition
There's much more to learn about the Celery City, but let's move on to the celery-inspired cocktails we enjoyed!
The evening's liquor sponsor was Ketel One Botanical. It is a vodka "distilled with real botanicals and infused with natural fruit essences." Currently the Botanical line includes: Peach and Orange Blossom, Cucumber and Mint, and Grapefruit and Rose. Each bottle is sans sugar, artificial sweeteners, and artificial flavors.
(Side note: we learned that Ketel One is produced by the Nolet Family Distillery in the Netherlands, which has been in existence for over 325 years and has been passed down 11 generations.)
Alex from The Woods in Downtown Orlando laid down the gauntlet with a cocktail inspired by the demise of the celery industry. He had all sorts of tinctures, bitters, and syrups prepared for his drink that was topped with the Grapefruit and Rose vodka. Garnished with dehydrated grapefruit and powdered celery, it nicely summed up the harsh and difficult winters of the early 1890s that Central Florida experienced. It also had a kick of heat, reminding us that the summers aren't very gentle here either.
Justin represented the second Downtown Orlando bar, The Courtesy. Named Phoenix Rising, he was influenced by Central Florida's resurgence after the death of the citrus industry. Aside from the required celery ingredient, he included the Peach and Orange Blossom vodka, the very Floridian key lime, and ITALICUS, an Italian liqueur made with rose petals. The mix resulted in a beautifully pink-hued cocktail.
Next, Mike from BauHaus double-strained us a cocktail which included celery, apple cider vinegar, Jägermeister, topped with bubbles, and garnished with strawberry and mint. This one was really the most intriguing for my palate and was complex without being confusing.
Since it is a competition, we had the most unfortunate task of choosing our favorite! And thus, that evening's imbibers crowned Justin and his Phoenix Rising cocktail Celery King.
It was such a fun night and we highly recommend cocktail enthusiasts and historians alike attend future "History in a Glass" events. Keep an eye on the Orange County Regional History Center's website and Facebook page for upcoming themes and dates!