“Miami!” my co-worker imitated a little flamenco move as he said it. “The Land of Fake People.”
With that send-off and others, we expected a sea of inebriated, spray tanned college students. Thong bikinis. Camelbaks filled with beer. Borrowed Lamborghinis and lowered inhibitions. And then us: a lanky, sunburned pair with decidedly un-chiseled abs, in search of fresh roasted coffee and Cuban food on our fixie bikes. Was this vacation doomed from the start?
We went to Miami a few weeks ago for our spring break, with zero expectations aside from perhaps stepping in puke. To our complete surprise, it was kind of great.
First, get all those “beachfront orgy” images out of your head. Yes, we felt obliged to tool around South Beach and gawk at all the exposed butt cheeks and elaborate mating rituals on display. J wandered happily amongst the crowds, relishing in the anonymous crush of bodies. I smeared on some SPF 70, draped my shorts over my face and fell asleep. Fortunately, the whole northern stretch of Miami Beach is more introvert-friendly, and there’s a great boardwalk. Despite myself, I kept directing us back to the beach, but that wasn’t the entire reason we fell for Miami.
There was Cuban food, of course: cortados, mojitos, fried plantains and pork that fell apart if you so much as looked at it. We ate incredibly well. There was art and architecture. Just neighborhoods apart, you can marvel at giant murals on every available surface, interior decor straight out of Scarface, and a perfectly preserved Art Deco paradise.
And then there were the people: squat Cuban abuelitas, sneakerheads, approachable hipsters. Conversations flowing between languages without thought. Suits, bearded guys with man buns, and tourists in the same bar. We met lots of ex-Californians, and they all said the same thing: they came to Miami because it was like L.A., except you don’t have to try so hard. You like the sun? You like being able to go to the beach every day? Bienvenidos a Miami! Nothing further required.
On our final morning, we drove into Coral Gables for one last sun-saturated breakfast. Buying breakfast always feels like such a splurge–look, everyone, I’m not eating instant oatmeal!–and at the same time we enjoy it so much. Expecting nothing more than scrambled eggs, I was surprised to find pickled fruit on the menu: watermelon, mint, pineapple, and strawberries, quickly preserved in a glass jar with a wire clasp, served with thick yogurt and granola. Each bite was a microcosm of Miami: bright, beautiful, and wholly unexpected.
I headed straight to the Internet when we got home to figure out how to recreate that pickled fruit. From what I can tell, the version I had was either inspired by or at least similar to this Alton Brown recipe. The basic concept, a “shrub,” dates back at least as far as Prohibition. With alcohol out of the picture, people still needed something refreshing to sip when a soda just wasn’t cutting it. Fruit, sugar, herbs, and vinegar produce a potent concoction perfect for mixing with seltzer. These days, shrubs are back in fashion, and make a sophisticated alternative for those who choose not to imbibe.
The shrub syrup is great, but what about the fruit? Strawberry pineapple shrub is a formidable breakfast paired with thick honeyed yogurt and a little granola, and is equally good over vanilla ice cream. I was glad to have made a huge jar of the concoction, and we delighted in finding new ways to enjoy it. However you take your shrub, give it a few days in the fridge before opening, and a little bit of Florida is yours.
- half a ripe pineapple, skin and pips removed, chopped coarsely
- one pint of strawberries, hulled and quartered
- a handful of mint leaves, minced
- 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 cup champagne vinegar or rice wine vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- Layer fruit into a large jar or two quart jars. Pour lemon juice and mint on top.
- Bring water, vinegar, sugar, and ginger to a boil in a small saucepan. Pour over fruit, covering completely. Cover jar(s) and refrigerate at least a day before serving. We started by eating the fruit plain, and as it infused further we switched to making cocktails and eating on ice cream.