Thursday, June 17, 2010

Robert Is Here: The Frugivore in Paradise

The last full day we were in Florida was the day we woke up in Kendall (a western suburb of Miami—on the highway) and drove through Homestead to Everglades National Park. If you’ve never been to the Everglades, you should make a point of going.

Unlike other major national parks, which mostly seem to center around some kind of spectacular rock formations (mountains or canyons), this one shows you geological flatness. On the road leading into the park, there are signs giving you the elevation: “2 feet”; “3 feet”; “4 feet” . . . However, just a tiny change in elevation means the difference between swamps, prairies (“glades”), pine scrub, and mahogany and mangrove hammocks.

So although it doesn’t offer the mountaineer much to chew on, it is an excellent place to feed your inner biology nerd, to go botanizing, bird-watching, and much more. Including alligator-watching! (And yeah, if you want to see the nifty tree snails, you’ll need sunscreen and bug repellent!)

Apart from the day when all the hydromedusae and comb jellies were in the water near where we were staying at Captiva, this was my favorite day of the whole trip. Yes, because of the wonderful biological diversity of the ’Glades . . . but in particular because of our stop at the nationally known fruit stand called Robert Is Here.

Robert Is Here is a fruit stand located in Homestead, Florida, at a prominent intersection for visitors headed to the Everglades—where westbound FL Route 9336 turns due south onto local road SW 192nd Ave. (There! Now you can find it on Google maps!) It’s surrounded by orchards and crop fields.

There’s a fun story about the name of the stand—it started when its owner was six and sitting at his dad’s produce stand, and not selling anything. Then, a “light bulb” lit up above his dad’s head and he made a sign, “Robert Is Here”; the next day he hung it up next to the sweet little boy. The advertising worked, because people noticed young Robert and bought up his produce. That’s how it got started, back in the early sixties.

This was actually my second time to visit Robert Is Here (and the Everglades). My first visit was in July 1975, when I was nine! On that trip, we saw the liftoff of the Apollo portion of the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft linkup (remember the handshake in space?). My uncle was living in Florida at that time and invited my family to visit. (By the way, in the picture, that’s him waving from his sweet little Jensen-Healey.)

I have foggy memories of that visit, as they are all mixed up with the rest of my impressions of the entire trip. I do remember that Robert Is Here sold curiosities such as starfruit, mangoes, papayas, and watermelon soda. Even then, the tropical fruit stand seemed as much of a tourist attraction to me as the national park.

Now it’s thirty-five years later, and Robert Is Here has been featured in lots of national media, including my beloved Gourmet Magazine (May 2003), which singled it out as one of the few places in this country to get a decent selection of truly delicious mango varieties.

(Foodie geek: since Gourmet’s demise, and there were no "recent" issues to bring along, I plumbed my back issues for a few magazines to take with me on the plane. The Florida Keys issue, May 2003, was one I brought on this trip. How appropriate!)

Not surprisingly, Robert Is Here has expanded in the last thirty-five years. They offer a luscious selection of seasonal tropical fruits and cool beverages to a curious, hungry, and often overheated tourist crowd.

By the way, there are a ton of fruit stands in the area, many of them apparently owned by Cuban immigrants, and they probably offer lower prices, but I suspect most of them don’t offer the huge extravaganza of products, or the “experience.”

Mangoes are a specialty, but Robert Is Here offers a huge range of tropical specialties—avocados, sapodillas, papayas, key limes, tamarind, water coconuts, and on and on. When we were there, the oranges and most other citrus weren’t in season. But they do sell homemade key lime pies!

And their milkshakes were incredible! There was a big sign for key lime milkshakes, but you could get just about any of their fruits mixed in. Sue and Dad had the key lime shakes, as advertised. The creaminess of the shake made it taste kind of like a key lime pie—a stupefyingly delicious combination of tart and sweet, juicy and creamy. I can’t think about it without my mouth watering.

Mom had a strawberry-key-lime milkshake. I didn’t try that, but you can imagine how yummy that must have been. When it came time to order, I was in a momentary crisis. I wanted to try all of them—they had something like twenty different fruits posted, most of which were curiosities like sapote, dragonfruit, longan, and so forth.

“Jackfruit” caught my eye, so I ordered that.

I’d never tasted jackfruit before. I was drawn to them in the fruit stand because of their tremendous size and unusual bumpy rind. While waiting for our order to be made, I scored a sample of jackfruit as some of the workers were cutting up one for a customer. (They will cut the fruit for you—how nice is that? Not every tourist is adept at dismantling novel fruits, you know.) It tasted like . . . smooth, creamy pineapple, or pineapple without the “bite.” The texture was also like pineapple, but more slippery. Or maybe like a banana crossed with a pineapple.

Botany nerds: Jackfruit is in the Moraceae (mor-AY-cee-ee), the mulberry family. So is our local Osage orange (which is not edible but shows promise as a source of mosquito repellent). The interior of the jackfruit fruit is structurally very similar to that of the Osage orange (if you’ve ever broken one of those in half)—both are “multiple fruits.” Jackfruit has been cultivated in India for perhaps six thousand years.

Anyway, after my little sample, I was confident of my choice! In the milkshake, the jackfruit was mellow, and it added an intriguing flavor that was just . . . “tropical.” Yum!

Sorry that there are no pictures of the actual milkshakes, but it was starting to rain, we’d spent the whole day traipsing around the Everglades, and we still needed to drive clear across the southern part of the state and get to Naples in time to find our motel and get dinner.

And I haven’t even told you about their fabulous selection of honeys. They had samples available of each. There were “flavored” honeys (ginger, key lime, tangerine, cinnamon, etc.) as well as those whose flavor actually comes from the nectar source. Of the latter, I was intrigued by the mangrove honey, as well as the goldenrod, palmetto, avocado, mango, and (of course!) tupelo. (We brought home some mangrove honey.)

And then there are the preserves, jellies, salsas, dressings, and other relishes and sauces. All this stuff, including the fresh fruits (when in season), is available by mail order:

There was more—live music, some lovely parrots to visit out back, vintage trucks in front, and flowers and souvenirs for sale. And yes, Robert himself “was there,” cheerfully helping customers and offering advice alongside his many young employees.

Of course, the biggest attraction for me was the heart of the business: the incredible array of strange new fruits. Such possibilities! I wanted to bring home a sample of each, even a big ol’ jackfruit!

Decisions, decisions. (I’ll let you visit their Web site to see the list and all the pictures.)

What a fun place!

Robert Is Here on Urbanspoon


Anna said...

Hi Julianna,
My name is Anna Moehling and I work at Robert Is Here. My father-in-law is Robert, the owner. We have almost no pictures of the early fruit stand that survived Hurricane Andrew. Could we have your permission to use the picture you posted of your uncle at our fruit stand on our website and in the future when publications ask for older pictures of the fruit stand? It would be so helpful to us. You can email us if you would like a We loved the blog and the pictures you posted and would love to hear from you.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Wow, thank you for your kind comment. I'll check with my parents (whose picture that is) to make sure they're okay with it, but I don't imagine it will be a problem.

Thank you for asking! I'll be in touch with you privately.