Roadside Mayhaw Jelly in NW FL

5 Jun

I spotted the above signs as we were driving through NW Florida recently. Not the heavily traveled FL panhandle, but the remote, unglamourous part of the “Sunshine State” just before you connect with Interstate 10. Stands like this really don’t exist on the interstates anymore, so I figured this might be my last chance to explore the flavors of Old Florida. It ain’t Stuckey’s or Cracker Barrel, folks — and that is truly a good thing in my book!

Willie Robinson’s Pecan House was furnished with all kinds of edible Southern goodies, yet it was the Mayhaw Jelly and Tupelo Honey that struck my fancy this particular day. Tupelo Honey is pretty hard to find outside of this part of the world and can be rather expensive. Mayhaw Jelly is even more rare … only appearing in roadside stands & country farm markets in the late Spring of each calendar year.  

Mayhaw Jelly is a pricey seasonal treat & worth every penny. It is made from a small, tart wild berry that grows in Dixie swamps. Here’s what the nerds at Wikipedia have to add: 

Mayhaw is the name given to the fruit of the species of Crataegus series Aestivales[1] that are common in wetlands throughout the southern United States. The principal species are C. aestivalis, the eastern Mayhaw, and C. opaca, the western mayhaw.[1]

Mayhaws grow in moist soil in river and creek bottoms under hardwood trees. The fruit ripens in late April through May, thus the name mayhaw. The fruit is also found in bayous surrounding lakes, such as Caddo Lake on the Texas/Louisiana border. Mayhaws are often collected out of the water from boats to be used to make jelly.

Families used to go on outings to collect mayhaws and create stockpiles of the jelly to last throughout the year, but the tradition has declined with the increasing urbanization of the South and the destruction of the mayhaw’s native habitat. The fruit has also been cultivated to grow outside of wetlands and this is increasing the source of the jelly.

Willie Robinson ran this little cottage industry for several decades before passing away a few years back. His brother Arthur (pictured above) picked up the reins in hopes of carrying on the family tradition. Arthur was kickin’ back in a battered recliner, rusty fan going full blast, when I met him on this steamy, hazy May afternoon. He pulled himself out of his “Archie Bunker chair” and slowly walked me through all the merchandise.

Arthur is a very mellow old dude. He paused momentarily to show me a recent newspaper clipping singing the praises of his sweet Tupelo Honey. All the while, I was wondering if I was his first customer of the day — this place was pretty remote and he, it seemed, had all the time in the world.

I wasn’t packing a whole lot of cash and let’s just say Arthur doesn’t accept credit cards. No surprise there, right? However, I did rustle up enough green to score a tall jar of Mayhaw Jelly. We were already packing some fresh Greek bread that we had picked up earlier in Tarpon Springs and I sensed that the Mayhaw preserves would make an excellent foil for the recently baked loaf. I turned out to be right on the money. A clash of cultures, perhaps. But the end result was a true melting pot of pleasing textures and flavors.

We’ll be passing through again in December and I trust our friend Arthur Robinson will still be here – chillin’ in his beat-up easy chair, rusty fan buzzing away, carefully balanced jars of Mayhaw Jelly, pickled Okra, and Tupelo Honey standing at attention, ready for service.

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