Tasting Tallahassee

The Thinker by Rodin

I lived in Florida for five and a half years. Part of it was spent finishing high school in Daytona Beach; the other half was spent rushing through a four-year degree at what was then called Florida Technological University (now the University of Central Florida) in Orlando. Being a northeastern boy, spending the latter half of my teen and early adult years in Florida was a big change. Overall, Florida did not agree with me. After graduation, I migrated back north to the Washington D.C. area where I have been happily but expensively abiding ever since.

Florida was too weird for my tastes: too hot, too humid, too old, too flat and too much weird nature including giant armor-plated rats (armadillos), pervasive monster-sized cockroaches and conjugating bugs. During mating season, “love bugs” would smear your windshields and gunk up your radiator grills. It was also too conservative: Baptist churches overwhelmed the religious landscape. Anita Bryant got tired of selling orange juice while I was there and found it convenient to attack gays and liberals instead. While Orlando seemed a much more happening place than Daytona Beach, not enough of the right stuff (like jobs) was happening there to make me hang around.

The Florida panhandle remained unexplored territory until business took me to Tallahassee last week. I wondered, would it be more of the Florida I remembered or much different culturally and climatologically?

Four nights in Tallahassee in October are not long enough to say for sure. One thing surprised me: Tallahassee has hills. Granted, they would hardly qualify as hills in most other states but they are enough to be noticeable. Perhaps that is why Florida put its capitol building on a Tallahassee hill. From there you can look down on the state, such as it is.

Yet what of the rest of Tallahassee? The trip from the very laid back Tallahassee airport to my hotel was not encouraging. It tells you something when you routinely pass by business establishments with iron bars in front of their windows and doors. Happily, the neighborhoods improved as we moved toward the center of the city. Our hotel just east of the capitol on Apalachee Parkway seemed situated in a more prosperous and growing area of the city. It came complete with an Applebees and a mall.

The Washington area is hardly known for its low humidity. Nonetheless, the humidity in Tallahassee, which hit us from the moment we disembarked our plane, was pervasive. During our five days and four nights, it never abated. The Courtyard Inn where we stayed was reasonably upscale. Even so, the effects of living in a humid climate were impossible to mask. The cold air coming from my air conditioner unit was cold enough, but it also smelled of mildew.

I have returned to Central Florida a number of times since I left in 1978. In many ways, particularly around the Orlando area, it has grown cosmopolitan. The same does not feel true of Tallahassee. It may host two large universities. It may have nicer areas on its northeastern side. Many roads may even come with bike trails, a nice touch I also saw in my last business trip to Madison, Wisconsin. At its heart, Tallahassee feels good ol’ boy redneck, with a dash of Cajun thrown in. There are Starbucks in Tallahassee, but proportionately far fewer than in most cities. A search on Google Maps shows only eight Starbucks in the entire city. This was a source of consternation to our group, for whom quality coffee was critical. The Carmel flavored water represented as coffee at the Courtyard Inn didn’t quite do the trick.

There was a dearth of other expected institutions in certain parts of the city. I take these for granted elsewhere. Where I live you cannot walk two blocks without tripping over an ATM or a bank branch. In certain parts of this city, ATMs and banks were simply unavailable. You could drive for miles on the major roads and find neither. Maybe in these neighborhoods people like from paycheck to paycheck. Maybe they use neighborhood cash checking businesses instead. However, I found the lack of banks in many areas of the city disturbing.

Also disturbing were the number of obese citizens in Tallahassee. Maybe obesity is part of the good ol’ boy culture. Thank goodness for the students, who generally have fewer weight problems. They provide some balance to a city that is disproportionately not just overweight, but obese. Perhaps the obesity is one consequence of farm subsidies, which have made grains and processed foods so plentiful and cheap, while pushing up the cost of quality vegetables and fruits. A doctor specializing in diabetes should consider moving to Tallahassee. He would have no lack of clients, particularly among the African American community. I imagine Glucophage manufacturers would want to set up special distribution outlets in Tallahassee to handle the demand.

Wherever I go on my employer’s dime, I try to take in some of regional cuisine. As you would expect being near the Gulf coast, there is plenty of seafood, as well as Cajun cooking in Tally. I have not yet been to New Orleans, but I suspect the Cajun cooking we sampled is not quite as good as what you can find there. Naturally, being in the South, finding grits and black-eyed peas on the menu was a given. Barbeque joints are also popular. The hardest kind of food to find in Tallahassee is the quality healthy kind. There are no Whole Foods in Tallahassee. I am not sure a Whole Foods store would be commercially viable there. The obesity epidemic in the city is no doubt fed by the many, many greasy fast food joints available in the city.

One upside to living in Tallahassee is that it is a cheap place to live. 1960’s era housing, particularly the run down three-bedroom ranch type house with a carport can be had for a song. While you may not get the variety of foods found elsewhere, at least food is cheap. A retiree looking to pinch some pennies could pinch many pennies living in Tallahassee.

Overall, my northeastern biases are probably showing. If you prefer relatively slow traditional Southern living with some of the advantages of living in a city, Tallahassee should meet your needs rather well. While in Madison, Wisconsin at the end of September, I was impressed enough by the city to mention it to my wife as a possible retirement community. I think we can rule out Tallahassee as a place to spend our golden years. Nonetheless, I was glad to becoming acquainted with Tallahassee, although my acquaintance is likely to remain fleeting.

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