The featured ingredient in the house salad at Cedar Key’s Island Hotel is, nominally, heart of palm, the crisp yet tender core of a tree. The ingredient that makes it remarkable is the scoop (or two) of bright-green ice cream that sits atop the whole concoction.
When Bessie Gibbs and her husband arrived in Cedar Key, the Island Hotel had been used most recently as a brothel and speakeasy. The Gibbs cleaned the place up, and in 1947, they reopened the building as a hotel, bar, and restaurant, which became known for its fresh seafood and giant portions. Bessie oversaw the kitchen and worked with the cook, Catherine “Big Buster” Johnson, who is credited with creating the original heart of palm salad.
In Florida, heart of palm has long been a fresh, local delicacy, distinct from the canned hearts of palm that are served in salads up North. The salad that Bessie and Catherine cooked up was an original, though. Along with heart of palm, it featured colorful fruits and sharp candied ginger. The ice cream was the true pièce de résistance: a creamy, nutty topping that would quickly melt into dressing.
Several versions of the recipe are floating around, and there is some disagreement about what to include. There are usually dates and fresh fruits, which might be banana, pineapple, papaya, or some combination thereof. Sometimes there’s a garnish of candied ginger. Often, these ingredients are meant to go over a bed of lettuce. For the ice cream dressing, it’s clearly supposed to be green. One version of the recipe calls for pistachio ice cream, a few for lime sherbet. But older versions use vanilla: The dressing is a mix of vanilla ice cream, peanut butter, mayonnaise, and green food coloring.
The salad is iconic, but is it actually good? The reviews, surprisingly, are positive. As a New York Times reporter wrote, summing up its appeal, “This salad is better than dessert.”