Oh my gosh, just look at the calendar. It appears we’ve cycled back into the “Orlando Needs a Signature Dish” epoch. This is a period that occurs every couple of decades or so, brought on by lamentations that Central Florida has no regional foodstuff that causes people around the world to tell each other, “Oh, when you go to Orlando you must have the [enter name of dish here]; they’re known for that.”
We’re not known for anything. It’s regrettable, but it’s true. And it isn’t likely to change.
But that isn’t stopping Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and Visit Orlando from trying once again.
In her State of the County address earlier this month, Jacobs announced a new initiative launched with the help of local chefs. Here is how it was presented in the county’s recap of the address:
To leverage Orange County’s global identity and help visitors solidify their impression of the Orlando region, Mayor Jacobs announced a fun and delicious initiative, #MySignatureDish, in partnership with Visit Orlando. #MySignatureDish will create a signature dish for the region, celebrating the “renowned bounty” of Florida’s agricultural industry and Central Florida’s growing foodie scene. #MySignatureDish will be unveiled to coincide with September’s hospitality and dining industry-led “Magical Dining Month.”
(The actual hashtag is #MyOrlandoDish, which is a good thing because MySignatureDish is the Twitter handle of someone with five followers who hasn’t tweeted since May of 2012.)
Godspeed to them all, but I think it’s an exercise in futility. Judging from the faces in a video about the project posted on YouTube, the mayor has tapped the talents of of the area’s finest chefs (though there’s no confirmation that any of them have take up the challenge). If anyone can create a signature dish, it’s our top chefs.
The thing is, they’ve all got signature dishes that they serve at their restaurants. And if they could cause them to become the go-to destination food item for the area, they would have done it by now.
And others have tried. In 1990, Bob Morris ran a contest via his column in Florida magazine for readers to come up with THE definitive dish for Orlando. The winner: gator ribs.
And that’s why you see gator ribs on just about every menu in town and people the world over say, “You must have the gator ribs when you go to Orlando.”
(By the way, the winning dish was submitted by Palmer Yergey, who owned Palmer’s Place, a funky seafood restaurant on Orlando Avenue in Winter Park where Italio just closed — watch for news on a new eatery there soon.)
But here’s the real crux of the matter: You can’t just decree a region’s signature dish. The signature food of a town, country or region is, you should pardon the expression, baked in.
In the video, Jacobs cites the fish and chips of England and the cheese steak of Philadelphia as inspirations in the new quest. She could also have mentioned Louisiana’s gumbo, New England clam chowder or even South Florida’s Key lime pie. And let’s not even get started on the various regional styles of barbecue.
But all of those dishes became regional identifiers over time. They’re ingrained in the culture and part of its heritage, often because of the contributions of resettled immigrants. The melting-pot diversity of Central Florida may be too vast to focus on one ethnic fusion.
But who knows? It could happen.
But if the collective minds of the chefs who take up the challenge do come up with a dish for Orlando to call its own, it won’t occur overnight. If there were a magic wand to make it happen, people would be lining up all over town for gator ribs.