How South Florida Jews Shaped The State's Food History

Dec 17, 2013

A couple chats after ordering stone crab in Key West, 1963.
Credit Credit Francis P. Johnson, Florida State Archives

Food is a lens. It's not all about chefs and buzzy restaurants. It's a lens through which we can learn about our culture, history and environment, among other things.

The Jewish Museum's latest exhibit, "Growers, Grocers & Gefilte Fish: A Gastronomic Look at Jews & Food" uses food as such a lens. The exhibit and concurrent events, like Jewish-food walking tours, run through October 2014.

Here are some facts about Florida's history gleaned from a recent visit to the exhibit:

1) Along with being the founders of Joe's Stone Crab, Joe and Jenny Weiss were also the first known Jews to live in Miami Beach. Joseph came to Florida in 1913 for health reasons (he suffered from asthma).

The South of Fifth (SoFi) neighborhood where Joe's still stands became a vibrant Jewish community in the 1920s and '30s. Jewish Museum director and chief curator Jo Ann Arnowitz says: "At that time Jews could not own land north of Fifth Street because of discrimination and land-deed restrictions against [them]."

A 1980s photo of the original quarter chicken value meal at Pollo Tropical
Credit Pollo Tropical

2) The Pollo Tropical Cuban-food fast-casual chain was started by two Jewish brothers, Larry and Stuart Harris, in 1988. The brothers owned the chain -- beloved by many in South Florida for its aromatic rotisserie chicken, fried yucca and mojo sauce -- for ten years before selling the company.

The Pollo Tropical chain now extends around the Southern U.S., into Latin America and the Caribbean and, as of this year, into New Delhi, India.

A bag from The Raleigh Hotel's early days as a kosher resort is also on display at the Jewish Museum.

3) The Raleigh and the Astor were once kosher hotels. They operated under the supervision of a rabbi. During WWII, the U.S. war administration used the hotel to house troops. After the war, the ballroom was used as a synagogue.

Brahma cattle in a small pen, 1946
Credit Florida State Archives

4) Some of Florida's prominent ranching families were Jewish. One of these ranchers, Nathan Wolf, purchased two huge tracts of acreage for cattle ranching in 1949, which later became Lehigh Acres and Port Charlotte.

"I think it's surprising to many people to see Jews as cattle ranchers," says Jo Ann Arnowitz. "People don't think of Jews in these industries. They think of them in retail business or maybe in the restaurant business but they don't think of them in these other areas. "

Shipping labels from Florida groves owned by Jewish farmers, on display at the Jewish Museum
Credit Trina Sargalski

5) Joshua Groves, established by James Shelfer near Arcadia, Fla., in 1880, eventually planted three million orange trees, which took up an area three times the size of Manhattan. The Shelfer family still operates citrus company today.

This is a guest post from WLRN contributor Trina Sargalski's food and drink blog, Miami Dish. She is also the Miami editor for Tasting Table. You can  follow her at @MiamiDish on Twitter.